Book extract: ‘Rebels and Rage’ by Adam Habib
Wits vice-chancellor reflects on how to achieve progressive change in our universities
Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of Wits University, is an outspoken academic leader in the #feesmustfall debate. In Rebels and Rage (Jonathan Ball Publishers, R250) he takes a frank view of the past three years on SA’s campuses, critically examining the student movement.
In 2017, Jonathan Jansen, the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, published a book – As by Fire: The End of the South African University – on the protests that had engulfed the country’s universities in the preceding two years. The title spoke to a common fear among many South Africans. But the book was far more nuanced than the title suggests. It did indeed argue that the South African university was under threat, but it did not conclude with a firm pronouncement on its demise.
Nevertheless, the future of the South African university is of concern to many stakeholders. In one school graduation after another that I have addressed in the past two years, the most common issue raised by parents and students is the stability of the South African university and its future as a recognised academic entity in the world.
Some parents – those with financial means, both black and white – have even begun to explore the option of universities outside of the country. While these concerns are legitimate, I am not of the view that the South African university is lost. Indeed, I believe that students and academics who opt for universities elsewhere in the world often make a mistake by choosing institutions that are, in many cases, academically weaker, and often cannot provide the contextual grounding that allows graduates to operate effectively in South Africa. After all, skills are important, but so is an understanding of contextual circumstances. Moreover, at university one learns as much outside of the classroom as within.
These contextual learnings are what an external institution does not easily provide. I should immediately clarify my argument, lest I be misunderstood. International experience is valuable because it enables a global consciousness and learning from comparative experience, and builds a solidarity that promotes a common humanity. But there are many ways of achieving this; the right mix of foreign and local experiences is important for producing graduates and citizens who are globally competitive and locally relevant, simultaneously African and citizens of our world.
It is also worth noting that, measured against the normal indicators by which university success or failure is determined, many of the South African universities perform really well. Obviously, as in many diverse higher education systems, the performance of individual institutions can vary significantly. But South Africa’s top universities compare well against their global peers. Research output is up in many of the universities, as is the number of postgraduate students. Pass rates and student throughput have improved in recent years, even if they may have plateaued in the past year or two. Technology has been widely adopted and there is significant experimentation underway with blended learning. By all these measures, South African universities are doing well. This is before taking cost into account. Even the most expensive of our institutions – UCT and Wits University – cost 10 to 20% of equivalent institutions in the United States or the United Kingdom.
The South African university degree is a truly worthwhile investment. This is not to suggest that there are no problems. Indeed, there are quite significant ones. Too many students still do not graduate. Access is a challenge, particularly for the poor and the ‘missing middle’. Social inclusion is an issue. But all these issues – access, inclusion, throughput and protests – are increasingly becoming a feature of higher education institutions around the world, including those in North America and Western Europe. It is perhaps true that these issues play out in a more accentuated form in South Africa. But all this means is that we are simply a precursor of what is to come.
In many of my engagements with universities and their executives elsewhere in the world, I have reminded them that our issues are the same; our current challenges are essentially their future ones. Yet this must not lull us into complacency. Our challenges may be the world’s, but there is an urgency to address them, if only for our own needs, collective ambitions and goals.
In a public reflection in the Daily Maverick in early 2018, I argued that we would not be able to address these challenges if all stakeholders in the university did not become measured in their expectations and requirements. I lamented that university leaders are caught in a pincer by students who do not want to pay fees, below-inflation increases in government subsidies, and employees’ demands for high remuneration.
This scenario is just not sustainable. If it persists, the fiscal stranglehold on universities will begin to undermine quality. I urged measured demands on the part of unions, and consideration by union and university leaders of multi-year salary agreements, to protect employee rights while still ensuring that the sector remains stable. There is no doubt that we need to pay competitive salaries, simply because universities need to appoint and retain the best staff. But we also need to do this within our institutional and wider sectoral context. In addition, we may need to consider differential salary agreements that prioritise the poorest among us, although this needs to be time-bound lest we create unintended consequences down the line.
Employees, however, are not the only ones who need to make concessions. All stakeholders need to make contributions that enable the collective’s effective functioning. Executives need to go the extra mile, be even more measured in the remuneration that they receive, facilitate the emergence of an environment that enshrines the principles of mutual respect, transparency and learning, and make institutional decisions that are in the broader interests of the university and society. Alumni must remain engaged in the university, support it in whatever way they can, and defend its interests in the wider community. Students also have to engage responsibly. They cannot demand fee-free education while making ever more requests for the provision of services. Most importantly, they have to engage other stakeholders with courtesy and respect.
Ultimately, it is essential for all stakeholders – university and union leaders, staff, students and the student leadership – to work together with integrity to achieve the balance between the short-term needs of each constituency and the long-term institutional obligations to our country. Internal stakeholders cannot guarantee the South African university’s future.
Broader South African society needs to recognise the importance of the public university and rise to its defence when it comes under threat. In recent years, the defence of the university has become the obligation of the vice-chancellor. But the public university is too precious a resource to be defended by only one of us. Its defence must become the responsibility of each and every member of society. We must collectively hold sectoral interests or politicians with short-term political agendas accountable.
It is only our collective might and leverage that can bring to heel many of the powerful individual and political forces that try to use the public university as a football for narrow individual, party or sectoral ends. It is in our collective interest to do so. Some of our universities are world-class, and play in a league way above the country’s level of economic development. Part of the reason for this is our skewed history, which allowed some of our institutions, Wits University included, to receive a greater share of national resources and compete with their peers elsewhere in the world, thereby enhancing our national competitiveness. We must ensure that we never lose this competitive advantage, especially given the digital transformations underway globally. Science and technology have always been important determinants of a society’s economic well-being. This is even truer in this new world of ours. The strategic challenge that we confront collectively is how to advance institutional equity and systemic higher education transformation without destroying the competitive national advantage bequeathed to us by our unequal history. All of our public universities have the potential to be used as instruments either to consolidate a social order or transform it.
To do the latter, they have to be reformed – nudged to provide greater access and facilitate greater inclusion. Some among us want to destroy the university as part of the process of social transformation. This will forever condemn many South Africans to perpetual servitude, for universities cannot be easily rebuilt. The destruction of our public universities would put processes in motion that would ultimately lead to the complete commodification of higher education. Local private teaching universities and foreign research universities would provide a quality education for the rich; the poor would be damned to inadequate and ever-declining postsecondary education in public institutions. This has happened before, in our schooling system. We must not repeat this in our university sector. Rather than embark on this destructive path, it would be far better to reform universities slowly, so that they increase access and continue to provide quality post-secondary and postgraduate education.
As we move deeper into the 21st century, it is important that all stakeholders recognise the central importance of public universities. They are essential – not only for training professionals, but also for producing the knowledge and technologies we need to participate and compete as equal citizens in the global community. Strong public universities are the midwives of the society that we want to become. We enter them as individuals, and emerge as part of a community. In a sense, they epitomise that principle of ubuntu, ‘I am because we are.’ Only through strong public universities, and the social foundation they build, can we achieve the collective progress, prosperity and inclusion for which we have yearned for so long. Public universities are the sine qua non of our collective freedom.