The Wits University SRC, along with almost the entire student population, sings and dances during a mass meeting on the steps of the Great Hall. File picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

South African universities must change course and show a genuine desire to implement transformation measures now, writes David Maimela.

Johannesburg - The idea of “corporatism” is the idea that you can use consultation and consensus building to reorder core and established interests in society to achieve particular social outcomes.

Sweden and other Western European countries are best examples of practising “corporatism”. In these countries, state, business and labour entered into creative institutional arrangements – especially in the 1960s to 1970s – to achieve better social outcomes.

Such arrangements are not permanent but subject to periodical reviews. That is the essence of progressive “corporatism”.

In the case of South Africa, we do not have such arrangements. In the instance that they exist, they are in the form of Nedlac and are fledgling and skewed in favour of the capitalist mode of production.

In part, tension and stagnation of the economy is attributed to the weak or non-existent institutional arrangements referred to above.

As a general rule, the dominant political economy structures of any epoch or society tend to influence and direct development in all other spheres of society, so that even the mental or cultural production of that society resembles the basis of material production of the very society.

And cultural institutions such as universities are not immune from this influence.

With the rise of neo-liberalism from the late 1970s, universities across the world, not the least in Africa, faced varying pressures to conform to the new “norma”: the market knows best and therefore public policy should make space for market-led development.

Make the state smaller and allow private corporates to determine the pace and direction of development and consequently better development outcomes will be achieved.

In South Africa, of course, this wave of thinking and economic restructuring reached its pinnacle in 1996 when we self-imposed a structural adjustment programme – the pros and cons of which have been debated ad nauseam.

Public spaces like universities faced their fair share of contraction and restructuring: they received less funding from the state and were forced to privatise a number of campus and student services, as well as to contain the student enrolment numbers.

On the ground, this restructuring by universities was met with fierce student struggles buoyed by the promise of 1994 and the declaration of the Freedom Charter: the doors of learning and culture shall be open to all!

Because of their nature, universities are best suited to test and implement progressive “corporatist” models of the mould described above.

They are morally and in principle required to manage a range of interests: students, workers, academics, the community and national interests such as transformation.

Sadly, universities have failed to overcome the stranglehold of neo-liberal corporate interests and culture and thus failed to transform. The biggest losers have been students and progressive knowledge.

At this stage, there is a need to make a distinction between progressive “corporatism” and “corporate” culture. The former refers to social compacting. The latter refers to the dominance of neo-liberal “corporate” culture in the university setting or elsewhere.

The take-over by narrow corporate managerialism has meant that universities favour more a closed “top-down” as opposed to an “open democratic” governance culture. As a consequence, student or worker movements and politics are seen as destructive and bad for the image and university “enterprise”.

Student politics are seen as an irritation as opposed to co-governors that make democratic co-operative governance vibrant, relevant and responsive. As a result, SRCs are depoliticised, the youth is depoliticised and the whole university is depoliticised – something impossible to achieve both in theory and practice is possible.

The university is ultimately projected as an island that exists outside of political society; with its relevance to society increasingly becoming questionable.

No wonder social exclusion thrives in our university system (racism, sexism, language oppression, class exclusion, Zionism, etc).

More than half of the vice-chancellors come from the progressive ranks and some have student movement credentials, but allow their agency to be hamstrung by corporate interests and cultures.

Back in 2006 a vice-chancellor said: “The Struggle is over, we are now engaged in an intellectual revolution, so stop politics.”

By any stretch of the imagination, it is bizarre for a professor to separate the cultural revolution from a political-economic one.

The vice-chancellors see themselves as chief executives whose performance is better illuminated by higher-income ratios and profits. Students are seen more and more as clients as opposed to the future that they are.

Indeed, the universities are just mere conveyor belts producing human capital for industry and not the transformative spaces they ought to be. As result, a social distance emerges between the university leadership and the student base, as well as the community.

This result is in the rising tensions that one sees at Wits, Stellenbosch, UCT and elsewhere.

If the student is a client, the relationship changes from being human to being commercial. In this context, the university will take no political or moral responsibility for building an inclusive culture.

The same goes for language.

Language is used for both material and mental production and, in some universities, if you can’t speak Afrikaans you are excluded from effective learning and teaching.

The “corporate” culture has extended to teaching, learning and research. Mahmood Mamdani argues against the decline and distortion of research in African universities when he observes that:

* The culture of consultancy has taken over to the detriment of expertise development in researchers.

* Researchers, more and more, are becoming generalists.

* Departmental libraries have become smaller. Extra-curricula activities such as seminars and workshops have migrated to hotels.

Mamdani goes further to argue the change of the complexion and posture of the university from being a university into being a polity think tank is dangerous for the academic culture and primary role of universities.

He argues quite correctly that, “a university may house think tanks, even several, but a university cannot be a think-tank”.

Further, economic and political studies emphasise more right ideologies, even in the face of the recent collapse of the neo-liberal global capitalism.

We have sort of returned to “Their Is No Alternative” (Tina).

Certainly, there is a role for the private sector in university life, but their role must be managed in a transformative manner. It must not erode the essence of what a university is. It must be managed in the spirit of progressive “corporatism” against “corporate” culture.

The problem is the power balance in the university is tilted in favour of “corporate” culture to the detriment of all other interests and relationships. Apparently, there will be another education summit in October focusing on higher education transformation.

Many among us are now sceptical of such forums simply because the voices, issues, ideas and personalities that will inform the content and outcomes of the summit will still conform to corporate interests.

The world has changed. There is no need to continue the stranglehold of neo-liberal corporate thinking and structures. It is encouraging to see that students are reclaiming their agency at the university.

The recent campus struggles and tensions are quite necessary for a new dawn. The university must change course and transform genuinely, now!

* David Maimela is researcher at the Political Economy Faculty of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra). He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent