Redefining universities for the greater good
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Transformation in higher education goes beyond mere ordinary reform, writes Felix Maringe.
Much has changed in higher education across Africa in the post-colonial eras. Enrolments have increased substantially.
Black vice-chancellors have been installed at many of our universities. Previously underprivileged students are gaining access to universities in increasing numbers. The number of indigenous staff members in the academy has been increasing steadily.
However, much has also stayed the same.
Success rates in many programmes continue to trace the contours of race and socio-economic background.
Educational wastage statistics, in terms of dropping out, non-completion, delayed completion and quality of degree outcomes, among other things, also reflect consistent racial and socio-economic background patterns.
The curriculum taught in many university classes has not changed substantially.
The professoriate continues to be dominated by white academics who populate the highest decision-making structures in many of our universities.
Worse, new challenges have beset the post-colonial universities in Africa, such as: reduced government spending on higher education; diminishing resources to support research, teaching and learning; the continued and increasing migration of African talent to richer universities in the north; governance and management challenges; and a sluggish approach to the notion of decolonising or Africanising the university curriculum.
Transformation by its nature has three fundamental dimensions. The first is an original state, which no longer serves the requirements of a new dispensation.
The second is a desired or imagined state, which breaks ranks with the original state in fundamental ways. The third comprises the processes and approaches used to effect this transformation.
The point about transformation is that it changes things fundamentally and permanently and is so designed that it does not easily return to the original status quo.
Jack Mezirow’s view of transformation is particularly instructive. He suggests that “transformation is irreversible change that alters the status quo in fundamental ways, allowing the person, organisation or system to embrace and promote a totally different world view and in the process enlarging that new world view”.
It seems clear that transforming higher education requires much introspection at multiple levels – including the ideological, strategic, structural, human, the curricula, and knowledge production – to correct past injustices and envision new directions, particularly in creating a broad-based system.
Achieving this through ordinary conceptualisations and change strategies will not be enough. Change alone can be easily reversible. For example, we can change ice into water by heating it. But we can get ice by reversing the process – by removing the heat and lowering the temperature.
I argue that many of the changes that have taken place in our universities in the post-colonial era represent this type of change.
Opening up access to previously underprivileged students without making sure that they have the same access to knowledge and will have the same opportunities to succeed as their privileged counterparts is hardly transformative.
The late Professor Wally Morrow, a member of the Human Sciences Research Council, coined the term “epistemological access” to argue the same point. In other words, increasing access on its own is merely changing the system physically and, I argue, cosmetically.
When the heat is on, the new participants melt out of the pot, dropping out in numbers, failing in their courses, failing to complete in time and, with those lucky enough stay the course, exiting with relatively poor passes. Our higher education systems have not been designed to transform things in fundamental ways.
Another example of change that has little potential for transforming our universities is the fast tracking of the black professoriate.
Among other voices, Jacky Lumby, at the University of Southampton, has legitimately argued that change is about the people.
Without a sizeable black professoriate in the highest ranks of decision-making, meaningful change has little chance of taking place in the post-colonial university. I have sympathy with this argument, but I would like to argue that two things might reduce the transformative intention of this process.
The first is that the new black professors often need mentoring, which at this stage is likely to be provided by the old guard.
The potential for producing more of the same is something the universities will have to guard against.
The second point is that becoming a professor is not just a process of producing a long list of publications.
It is, above everything else, being acknowledged by the local and international academy as having made a significant or outstanding contribution to our understanding in a given area.
This can take a little more time than that often needed to fast track the black professoriate.
Putting mechanisms in place that would protect the gains we make through such processes is what would lead to sustainable transformation in higher education.
Changing higher education through mere reforms would not be adequately transformative. Transformation goes beyond ordinary reform.
Beyond doing things differently, our higher education systems have to have new purposes. A transformed higher education system in post-colonial or post-democratic Africa has to redefine new purposes and consider ways of serving these new purposes for the greater good rather than for an elite minority.
A range of new questions needs to be asked in the context of the sustainable transformation of our universities in Africa.
* Professor Maringe is Head of Research at the Wits School of Education. He may be contacted at [email protected]
The Wits School of Education, in collaboration with the Higher Education Research and Policy Network, is to host a conference on “Sustainable Transformation and Higher Education”. Papers are invited and themes may be found at http://www.wits.ac.za/conferences/herpnet
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.