Transformation needs a radical outcome, not violence – Habib

Transformation in South African higher education is critical, and with the upsurge in protests university campuses have experienced in recent months “long overdue and welcomed” – but only if it is founded on achieving a radical outcome that takes into account quality defined by today’s demands – says Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits University.

Delivering a keynote address at the 9th Annual Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Conference held in Durban last week, Habib called on institutions to work together to forge a system responsive to global needs.

This demanded working together to break boundaries and reject the desire for emulating what could not be had under apartheid and colonialism.

He believed vice-chancellors, academics, student leadership and the government had all failed in responding to calls for transformation and were now blaming each other without taking responsibility, he told the conference hosted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, or UKZN.

“Higher education leaders and vice-chancellors want to build what they could not have under apartheid. But if we are to succeed in being what we were not allowed to be, we will have failed in delivering what is required for South Africa today.

“If leadership does not break from this thinking, South Africa will never make the necessary changes,” said Habib.

Transformation is not about violence

He had been struck by the impact the #RhodesMustFall campaign had had in shifting to similar debates on the campuses of the universities of Stellenbosch, the Witwatersrand and KwaZulu-Natal.

However, he criticised the confusion apparent between radical transformation and violence, indicating that while poor black students had been subjected to structural violence, it did not give them the right to convert to violence in their protesting.

“Fundamentally, we cannot be sanguine about violence,” he said with specific reference to the protests that happened on the UKZN campuses recently.

Habib questioned how universities could introduce a caring element into their curriculums, particularly when they functioned within an uncaring society.

Universities could not be held wholly accountable to changing the country’s social problems, but could also not function as islands. They needed to create knowledge using locality as their source of innovation that could then be exported globally.

However, into that debate was dismissing the notion that the old guard had the exclusive call on what constituted quality. It was “not a weapon that can be used for exclusivity”, but could also not be dismissed as a principle.

“Transforming South Africa's universities means confronting these issues with courage from student leadership, academia and university leadership. It is the courage to stand up to violence and to question what has been taken for granted for too long – and these are hard questions,” Habib said.

Without getting a handle on these principles, South Africa would “never be able to free itself from a colonial consciousness”.

The need for differentiation

Equally critical was realising that differentiation in higher education institutions was a prerequisite for competitiveness.

While Finland has no institutions among the world's top 50, the country annually emerges a leader in competitiveness because different institutions in the education system fed into each other.

South African universities had to contribute to educating undergraduates to meet market demands, produce postgraduates and research relevant to the 21st century and support non-university tertiary sectors with vocational skills.

These elements demanded differing skills and could not be offered by a single institution or university, but by creating institutions with distinct characteristics.

He cited the US where there were around 5,000 higher education institutions that “do not look like Harvard” but are nationally responsive and globally competitive.

Habib indicated that research had to be a common thread throughout universities, as without that element there was no guarantee academics were at the forefront of their teaching.

However, universities and the government had to rid themselves of the concept that research-intensive and postgraduate institutions were ‘above’ undergraduate universities, and that financing structures were defined by an institution's standing on the research-intensive status scale.

“The reality is Wits is a product of apartheid and a product of our history, but it has to be relevant for the future. That is not a reason for Wits to secure the highest funding when it is far more important to expand the fourth-year study to bridge the gap between undergraduate and masters degrees that creates research for economic contribution,” he said.

He also called for a sufficiently flexible education system that allows movement between institutions, citing a partnership Wits has forged with the University of Venda.

Despite its location in the heart of the country’s mining industry, Venda lacked an engineering department. Consequently, Wits allowed bachelor of science, or BSc, graduates to transfer into third-year engineering to generate students with BSc and engineering qualifications within five years.

Critical to break down divides

This partnership was one step in breaking down the history by which ‘historically black’ universities were reservoirs of poor students and ‘historically white ones’ were reservoirs for the middle-class with some poor students being allowed into their halls.

History dictated that these universities were still driven along racial and class lines and, in not breaking these divides, “South Africa was in trouble”.