20 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Is higher education for the public good?

There is no South African academic who has not been intensely engaged over the events of the past year – the protests around #RhodesMustFall through to #FeesMustFall – in trying to think about and understand these unprecedented and fast changing events – they have affected and challenged us all deeply.

How do we maintain any sense of legitimacy for public higher education in the face of such radical social challenges? Bill Readings, author of The University in Ruins, argues for a University of Dissensus. But dissensus [widespread dissent] requires us to stay open. We can’t paper over the cracks.

Crucially, Readings, who points out the hollowness of ‘excellence’ as a framing for the contemporary university, also suggests that any attempt to find a new consensus risks further descent into the abyss of administrative vacuousness.

In a recent keynote, the renowned philosopher and historian Achille Mbembe is clear: "The university has to be radically open. Metaphorically and practically. It will never close. The last thing in society that will close is a university. When we close a university, that’s it. Then there is nothing left, it is time for us to disappear."

Here is a University of Cape Town, or UCT, colleague Nicoli Nattrass writing in 2015 following the decision to move the statue of Rhodes: "Removing the statue will provide the illusion that we have rid ourselves of Rhodes' legacy. It would cloak UCT in a false mantle of radicalism, hiding the embarrassing truth that we are an elite institution that reinforces social inequality on a daily basis.

"The statue should be moved – but let's keep it somewhere on campus to remind us that we are the living legacy of Rhodes' elitism, and have a corresponding debt to society."

Adapting to social change

What do we do with a difficult past in the context of a contested present? This is a central challenge for the public university anywhere – there is nowhere in the world that the university still serves only the students that it was originally set up to serve. Thank goodness, the world has changed too much. But also not enough.

How do we engage with those desires for the pain to go and the future to feel different? Here I would argue that while we need to embrace openness and dissensus, we also need to have a positive sense of what we are trying to do, of what is the relation between the university and society.

What is the value of an institution centred on knowledge, open to contestation, trying to hold together the past and the present? I think that an important angle comes through in current work that attempts to reconceptualise what we mean by the public good purposes of the university.

Jon Nixon, author of Higher Education and the Public Good argues that while the question of the purposes of higher education remains central through the years, it is the answer that needs to change over time; each generation and each society needs to work it anew.

Nixon grounds his vision in the expansion of human capability at the core of higher education, its capacity for advancing collective reasoning, and for supporting the development of a sense of purpose in individuals.

I don’t think Nixon intended to make the final comment on this topic, and I think he would agree there is substantial work to do in elaborating the vision, especially in the contexts of emerging economies and newish democracies in the Global South.

How can we justify the existence of a university in the context of a radically unequal society? Moreover, what is the impact of higher education on the lives of young people who come through it for an undergraduate education?

This is especially important because the broader #FeesMustFall challenge was not only about fees, but especially in the context of a university like UCT, a cultural challenge to the value and relevance of undergraduate education.

What is undergraduate education for?

Emerging findings from a project that I am coordinating has engaged with South Africa's young people on precisely this question. We interviewed participants some six years after they started university studies in arts or science, at which time most, but not all, had graduated. They were asked how having been through higher education had influenced their lives, and they gave both extrinsic (career-related) and intrinsic answers.

With regard to the latter, a sample quote from each of the categories we used gives a flavour of the data:

  • Personal growth: “You are just thinking of getting better and better and not like just wanting to sit at home and doing nothing.”

  • Gaining knowledge: "I got so much satisfaction [out] of finally understanding maths problems, especially when it is really difficult and you know that most of the other students can’t do it."

  • Analytical way of thinking: "What my humanities [degree] gave me really is the ability to critically analyse everything and not to take everything as it is… and you sort of get good at solving problems and arguing through things and seeing flaws in your own arguments."

  • Being around intellectually minded people: "In university you are meeting other people who are top learners while when you were in school you were exposed to few people."

  • Exposure to diversity: "I had to mingle with people from other African countries and other South Africans speaking different languages so it made me learn more about people’s languages and behaviour and backgrounds and what influences them and their likes and dislikes… University life has certain things such as promoting gender equality, fighting racism and xenophobia… So you are able to handle yourself in ways that you would not be able to if you hadn’t been to university."

  • Critical consciousness about society: "People graduate not necessarily enamoured by the university institution. You can graduate frustrated. You see the problems with the institution, with the privilege of the institution."

What comes through clearly in these expressions is that young people find themselves changed by the experience of higher education. There is an expansion of agency, an opening up of perspectives and possibilities. In the South African context many of these young people will be leaders and decision-makers in our society, whether in a large organisation, in government, in community work, or even within the deliberations in their families.

Making the case for higher education

They will be an important resource in building our future society and our democracy. To emphasise the contrast of these perspectives with some of the interpretations of the student protests, I want to put alongside these contemporary quotes an extract from the 2016 Helen Joseph Lecture by the acclaimed writer, scholar and university leader Njabulo Ndebele.

Here, his puzzlement around #FeesMustFall is expressed by a contrast with his own experiences as a student in the 1970s during the height of the repressive apartheid regime: "The apartheid-imposed limitations on my movements were countered by an internal sense of expansiveness I and many of my peers experienced as the very meaning of ‘black consciousness’… My fear of ‘white’ people, no matter how economically or militarily powerful they may have been was replaced by an enormous sense of inner possibility and power... Despite the overt power of the racially oppressive system, there was something in me beyond its reach.

“But something in the national environment today, articulated on some university campuses in 2016, appeared to have reached that inaccessible inner core in ‘black’ students and appears to have destabilised that core significantly such that the ‘black’ so affected appear to have lost control over the emergent means of self definition in the evolving, free and democratic social realm."

The crucial point here is that although articulated by individuals, the changes wrought here in individual consciousness also need to be understood in their impact on society.

Professor Simon Marginson stated that if universities cannot provide an adequate justification for their unique role in society, they will ultimately be dispensed with, as happened to other once august institutions whose purposes for society withered.

"When these institutions stand for nothing more, nothing deeper or more collective, no greater public good, than the aggregation of self-interest (like the monasteries in China and England, that accumulated vast social resources but came to exist only for themselves and those who used them) then the institutions are vulnerable," he said.

And turning to the South I want to return to Achille Mbembe to remind us that this is not only a theoretical argument: "My worry is that what is going on on campuses with the current impasse is many will begin to wonder whether it makes sense to invest so much money in these enterprises – which is exactly what happened in the rest of the continent, that the university ceases to be seen as a public good and more as a burden. And a place out of which not much is coming, except disorder, chaos and disturbance." We have urgent and important work to do.

Jenni Case is professor of academic development at the Centre for Research in Engineering Education in the Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Cape Town, South Africa. This is an edited version of Professor Case’s keynote at the Centre for Global Higher Education’s annual conference on 1 March.
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