Friday, May 14, 2010

Tertiary Education - what will the Stakeholder Summit bring?

It is never good to announce bad news, especially when you are new in a place. Nobody likes a Cassandra - the harbinger of bad news. The best example I can think of, and an object lesson in electoral politics that speaking the truth even, and especially if, it is bad news, is never popular, was the contest, after the unification of East and West Germany, between the Social Democrat Oskar Lafontaine and Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl for the Chancellorship.

To punch drunken Germans, still celebrating the newly united country, Lafontaine warned that it will be a very expensive unification and Germany would better think clearly this one through and find ways to mitigate the problems that may emerge.

Not so Kohl. He celebrated the unification, and promised "flowering landscapes" to an eager electorate. And Kohl won, and Germany is still trying today to digest the unification.

I digress.

But as recent graduate students at the University of the Witwatersrand, we faced so many obstacles and so little support, it was indeed a miracle that students managed to finish their degrees. And when we warned that things were not rosy, we were just ignnored and silenced. I do not intend to pick unfairly on Wits, but this is where I got my degree from and where I made my tertiary experience.

Clearly, the university was under enormous strain and faced capacity problems. But what strikes me even today is that all the people, instiutions, and individuals who 'carry' the university were unable to acknowledge and act upon the problems that threaten the health and contintuation of the academic and intellectual endeavour.

In any forum within the university that issues were raised, a stony silence and passive resistance met the complainants. And of course, nothing changed. So it is with no surprise that we learn of the Declaration that the recent Stakeholders Summit of Higher Education had made, and particularly the focus on improving the conditions of studying and ensuring that universities produce new cohorts of graduates who are smart enough to take up teaching and research positions.

The writing is on the wall. University faculty is aging and we are not producing the graduates who can take up their positions.

Just to consider a few examples. Graduate students need support and facilities. At one Faculty Meeting, the library asked for more money. The good librarian was told that Faculty would not use the library as its holdings were poor and Faculty would not divert 'their' money to the library. Now, how are graduate students supposed to do cutting edge research which requires books when Faculty says the holdings were so poor that they were not using it?

Another issue is the low level of throughput. A high percentage of students fail. This reflects the poor education that especially undergraduate students, even at formerly white universities, receive. Too many students walk away with a three year BA degree but they can't read and write properly.

This is a dangerous situation for any developing country. When I studied about the causes of the war in the former Yugoslavia, one contribution to the war was the easy mobilization of young men ready for war and highly gullible, somewhat educated but not quite, yet easily seduced by the facile explanations of populist leaders. The authoritarian university system had produced graduates who had certain skills but were in fact only semi-educated.

Now, if South African universities continue to churn out half-baked graduates, we create cohorts of young men and women with high aspirations but little chances to make it into well-paying jobs and into a better life.

Pseudo-education and resentment create individuals who may easily fall for a populist leader, promising easy solutions to complex problems.

Yet universities, given their limited capacities, ignored the problem. But I still don't understand how come that all the issues that students had raised about 10 years ago, internally, are only now recognized at a high-level university forum as pressing?

If the stakeholder summit reflects a change in thinking, maybe university education can still live up to the needs of a modern and developing society.

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