Transformation is "not for sissies"
There was not a person in the hundreds-strong audience who disagreed.
The road to transformation is strewn with obstacles to be overcome in delicate and complex university settings with multiple stakeholders and a very difficult and unequal past, concluded a summit commission on leadership, management and governance.
"It is always a daunting task to come up with a solution that satisfies academics, students and supporting staff," said Saleem Badat, Vice-chancellor of Rhodes University. And though there are legitimate expectations from different groups, there are also misguided demands by some that threaten to corrode the values of the university.
Leading the discussion on leadership management and governance, Badat said there were delicate challenges associated with transformation, which was a tiring and convoluted process. Also, to succeed transformation needed to be supported by resources.
"Universities don't operate like businesses. There are different parties involved and we do not have chief executive offers we can call on." Vice-chancellors who followed a set formula would be sure to fail, Badat warned, and despotic leadership in a university setting would thwart transformation.
"You don't achieve change by making demands. Roll up your sleeves and engage," he added.
Badat said there was a danger of implementing uncoordinated and misunderstood transformation, and that a university leader could drive change for five years - but the moment he or she left, there was a possibility that the institution would return to its old self.
He feared that transformation might damage well-performing institutions. Along with all vice-chancellors he also insisted that university autonomy must be safeguarded. Efforts to seek alternative funding should be encouraged, as long that those funding sources did not compromise university independence.
"Universities are fragile. We must find a balance between continuity and discontinuity. I am talking about what surrounds institutional culture, what has been produced and reproduced by academics in universities. But traditions, rituals, customs can also ossify our minds," he said.
Badat observed that higher education transformation did not only mean more jobs for black people and women. It was also a call to embrace a new culture and diversity. People should not reduce transformation to demographics and colour.
Earlier, Minister of Higher Education and training, Dr Blade Nzimande, stressed that when advocating for higher education transformation the government was not calling for a lowering of standards in South African universities.
"The reasons for low success and high drop-out rates are multi-fold and include problems associated with inadequate funding, poor student accommodation and living conditions and [poor] preparation for university studies," Nzimande said.
The commission was worried that discrimination, especially among young black women, was persisting within academic structures. Another problem, Badat said, was that many black people entered universities not to transform but to be assimilated - and this perpetuated inequalities and impeded transformation.
Babalwa Ntabeni-Matutu, director of institutional support and sector liaison in the Department of Higher Education and Training, was concerned about micro-management by vice-chancellors of university councils.
"Their roles must be clarified as these relationships have potential to affect transformation."
Ntabeni Matutu said other areas that also needed attention were the casualisation of academic labour and concentration by academics on research at the expense of teaching.
Professor Barney Pityana, Vice-chancellor of the huge distance learning University of South Africa, said the criteria by which academic performance is measured needed to be revisited - there should be incentives for both teaching and research.
University authorities said they could not absorb more under-prepared students, but the consensus was that institutions have no choice but to deal with the students they have - and that the best way forward was for universities to help improve the school sector and find better ways to support students from disadvantaged schools.
Retaining postgraduate students and academics who come to South Africa from other countries - mostly from other African countries - should be a priority, the summit agreed, along with a review of the salaries and conditions of service of academics.
"The cohort is getting older we need to think of replacements," the commission concluded. The average age of South African academics is over 50 years and, as one said, "we're not getting any younger".