Transformation must never be an excuse to let standards drop
Durban University of Technology should be commended for expelling 31 unqualified lecturers from its ranks
Two months ago, the unthinkable happened in South African education. A university ejected 31 lecturers from campus who were unqualified for the job. You heard right. This institution of higher learning actually took its job seriously (higher learning) and retrenched academics for low standards of scholastic achievement. That this happened in a university of technology, often stereotyped as the lesser academic cousin of the traditional universities, is all the more reason for applause. The Durban University of Technology (DUT) broke new ground in a country going the other way — they raised the standard.
The DUT could have gone the route of so many South African universities and dropped the standard in the name of transformation; we need more black professors so lets make it easier for our people to make the grade. Unisa recently offered a master class in the race (sic) to the bottom of the academic stakes — it set the standards for the professoriate so low that you hardly needed to do any serious research or publication or supervision of doctoral students. Show up with your black skin and you can slide into the rank of professor with the lowest scholarly achievements on the continent.
You cannot have lecturers with a bachelor’s or honours degree teaching students in a bachelor’s or honours class.
Everybody is getting in on the act of cheapening our academic qualifications. Last week the Sunday Times reported that the mayor of the Greater Giyani municipality conferred an honorary PhD degree on a Limpopo entertainer for his positive contribution to the community through the healing powers of laughter and comedy. I did laugh at this comedic silliness, and then cried. At least they covered their faces with masks, though not out of shame but for corona.
What the ample reporting on the cringeworthy saga at the Judicial Services Commission missed was the meaning of the decision not to take seriously the two white jurists contending for a seat on the apex court. “The demographics of the country” argument rang hollow; there are now no white males on the Constitutional Court. What some of the JSC commissioners such as Dali Mpofu were in fact doing was to render competence, experience and progressive credentials meaningless in the search for the best Constitutional Court judges. What they were in fact practising was racial malice, not judicial transformation. By eschewing high standards of appointment to the highest court, these commissioners were no different from the Unisa authorities or the Giyani mayor. They detest excellence and, in the process, destroy the credibility of the institution itself in the eyes of the public.
The DUT’s reasoning for its decision was compelling. You cannot have lecturers with a bachelor’s or honours degree teaching students in a bachelor’s or honours class. And yet this is something all too common in many of our universities — lecturers teaching a class at the same level of their highest qualification. This simply means that you actually do not know much more than the students you are teaching. As a paying parent, I would ask for my money back. But this is what we have tolerated for so long it even feels normal.
To its credit, the DUT decision was not impulsive but the end point in a 14-year-long appeal to lecturers to obtain their master’s degrees. Incentives were provided and development training was on offer. These academics remained unresponsive, perhaps because they did not take several deadlines seriously (for example, three years since 2018 to obtain a masters by 2021) or because they did not have the ability to obtain the higher degree. The CCMA was approached, consultation followed, and the unions balked at the idea of terminating staff for non-achievement of the master’s qualification. Out of 57 lecturers on a recent termination list, one did complete, 17 will finish at the end of 2021, six will retire shortly and two were retained because of their “scarce skills”. That put 31 lecturers out to pasture with a severance package effective August 13 2021. The terms of exit were not a foregone conclusion; as the vice-chancellor put it in a communiqué to staff, “the original position was not to offer any severance packages at all to people who had since 2012 plainly refused to follow the university’s instructions”.
Harsh? Not at all. Think of the costs to the economy of underprepared graduates that result from underqualified academic teachers. Consider the cost to a university’s reputation of having less than 50% of its staff with doctorates. And most important of all, weigh the consequences for human development of students not having been taught and mentored by the best available academic talent.
At the deeper end of the academic pool, last week a former fellow of my current university’s Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS) won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. Abdulrazak Gurnah is a Zanzibari native.
Now that is the sort of scholar you want to teach our students.