Higher education is a shambles, say academics

South Africa's higher education system is in a shambles, according to leading academics who met last week to discuss transformation in the sector. An aging profession, pitiful salaries and discrimination across the board were just some of the grievances aired during a commission for academics at the two-day Stakeholder Summit on Higher Education Transformation.

"The academic profession in South Africa is fading," said Professor Peter Vale, the Nelson Mandela chair of politics at Rhodes University. He presented his ideas on challenges facing academics, as a way to frame the 'academic experience' discussion at the summit, held at Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

"This is a long overdue conversation."

There were calls fat the summit or academics to unite to provide a voice for their profession - while students, university leaders and support staff are strongly represented, lecturers are not.

The aim of the 'academic experience' gathering was to draft a list of key proposals to include in the summit report.

The first proposal, unanimously agreed upon, was that a so-called "conditions of service" for professors be established at a national level to offer broad guidelines for basic criteria such as retirement age - currently set at 65, which many complained was too young - and salaries.

Participants agreed that the rules governing the sector were far too top-heavy and required more grass roots involvement. "Higher Education is framed as a structure where there's very little wiggle room," said Vale. "All these rules we accept are largely unwritten rules."

Another widely agreed upon initiative centered on the need for a commission to help revitalise and strengthen the academic profession by attracting much-needed younger academics and retaining them.

In recent years, the number of scholars under 30 entering academia has dropped while those over 50 has risen - a disturbing trend for university officials who fear the demographic shift spells disaster for the sector. "If the profession recedes into oblivion, all these summits and conversations will disappear," said Vale.

A third proposal looked at the need to reconfigure the curriculum to include more indigenous knowledge.

Academics said the higher education curriculum in South Africa as a whole failed to deal with issues relevant to Africa. For example, of 40 modules in the University of South Africa's (UNISA's) LLB law degree, 33 were compulsory - but only one compulsory course was in indigenous African law.

"Does that equip our lawyers to provide good service to the majority of the population?" said David Taylor, a law professor at UNISA.

One reason for this was the limited funding allocated to African research and texts, which left North Africa producing most of the indigenous knowledge on the continent. "Our funding formula is geared against African texts," said Vale, a fact academics agreed must change.

Of particular concern to tertiary educators was the exceedingly poor standard of education pupils receive at school. Academics said there had to be a "complete reimagining" of the system in order to somehow find common ground with university age students who read at a grade six or seven level.

"This is the youth we have. We can't export youth and import those we want," said Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, during his speech earlier in the day. That meant university educators were increasingly seeing the need to get involved in improving students' performance long before they entered higher education.

The fact is, South African educators are faced with unique challenges. Discrimination is still endemic at universities across the country 16 years after the fall of apartheid. It hasn't gone away, it has simply become more complicated, academics said.

The government-commissioned 'Soudien Report' on discrimination in universities found that racism was rife among all ethnic groups, staff members and students alike, at universities throughout South Africa.

"We need to think creatively on how to reconfigure race," said Professor Leticia Moja, Deputy Vice-chancellor at the University of Limpopo and the only black woman manager at the university, who believes there's still a long way to go: "We've just learnt how to do racism better."

The overwhelming thrust of the discussion was the urgent need for academics to make their voices heard, and to each take responsibility for their grievances, in whatever small way they can. "Transformation starts with an individual," said Moja.

At the summit Nzimande called for academics to organise themselves into a representative group with whom government and universities could negotiate. He said academics needed to be "a better organised constituency and better able to speak more forcefully for themselves".

While many academics belong to unions, academic staff associations that used to speak for lecturers on academic issues have largely disappeared. Today lecturers have a voice in matters covered by unions, but not their profession. There were several calls at the summit for this serious problem to be rectified through the creation of academic forums.

"To be competitive, we have to take back agency," added Vale. "We have to be charters of our own destiny."

Pledges in the summit declaration directly affecting academics were a call to revitalise the profession - including developing a plan to grow the number of young researchers - greater emphasis on postgraduate studies and research, improving working conditions for academics, developing a charter on learning and teaching, and making curricula more socially relevant.