Decolonising the South African University: Thinking Outside the Box!
This thought piece argues that in order to decolonise the university and the higher education system we need to consider the university not as an established, consolidated, bounded entity, but rather as an embryonic, networked and interconnected one; one that is fully embedded within the public sphere as a public good, without exceptions. It argues that we need to think outside of the inherited boundaries that the university is currently located within in order to imagine it as an entity that can help give birth – not only to new ideas – but to a wholly new society.
Note that this piece is not intended to be a systematic formulation of how South African higher education institutions should decolonise, but rather to highlight options that exist for a radical re-imagining of them and their role within society. These options are hence not proposals; they are merely put forward to stimulate new thinking on this critical challenge. In reality, a comprehensive framework for transformation of the university would have to be generated through a societal consensus.
Thus far, the debates around the #FeesMustFall movement in the media – often conducted by academics and government officials – have largely been uninspiring. The options that have been put on the table generally do not engage in a radical re-imagining of the university and its role within society. Yet, a radical re-imagining is precisely what students (and some academics) have been demanding and arguing for; not just in South Africa, but around the world.
The term “decolonisation” has been used to describe this demand, but what it means is as yet unclear. It is an imaginary that still needs to be formulated, and it may be imagined differently in different contexts. What is clear, however, is that a bold new vision needs to be co-constructed for public education; one that society can buy into and support into the long term.
The Settler University - Thinking Inside the Box:
Until now, the debates in South Africa have largely proceeded on the basis of accepting the current system of higher education as it is, and tinkering with its existing degrees of freedom, that is; the majority of proposals have been of the “thinking within the box” type. Typically, the logic around free education unfolds as follows; there are only three sources of income for the university; government funding, private sector funding, and fees.
When framed in this way, and located within the economic system that has produced this higher education system, the only ways free education can be offered are as follows; (1) the poor and “missing middle” students get free education – or loans that they only pay back if they pass (which is not free education) – and the middle and upper classes pay for education, (2) that government has to cut funding from another part of the state’s budget in order to fund free education (i.e. it comes at a cost to another sector of society; this is usually presented as single mothers, disabled people, people needing housing, healthcare and so forth i.e. the "selfish students" narrative), and (3) universal free education is funded by raising taxes across the board, or on the rich.
All the above offerings are premised on a system of economics and a governance system that is dictated by public-private arrangements that are brokered in order to share the state’s responsibility in the provision of services to the people who it is there to safeguard (i.e. to act in the public interest or public good). This sharing, is generally brokered through an agreement with society (i.e. parents and students who pay fees), and the private sector (who fund certain activities and act as donors), and philanthropists (wealthy patrons who make donations).
Yet, in the case of families, fees act as additional 'taxation' on their earnings, albeit one that they have a choice to make, but where not choosing to provide higher education for their children has very definite disadvantages for their children, and their future in the competitive South African labour market. That is; families are ‘double-taxed’ on tertiary education, while the benefits are accrued by society itself i.e. the state, the private sector, as well as the families and communities whose children are fortunate enough to receive a tertiary education in South Africa.
The University Commons - A Shared Responsibility and Public Good:
Clearly, there is already a lot of sharing of the burden of keeping institutions of higher education healthy in South African society. But this theme does not as yet extend to the role of higher education institutions in society itself in full. That is, they still largely operate as private entities, to whom the public at large have little access and interaction with. They have not become institutions that are fully embedded within society; they are not members of the full commons that South African society has sought to establish in the post-1994 dispensation.
The commons that the university belongs to is still largely a settler commons; to which the privileged and elite of society enjoy disproportionate access to. The university remains a settler enclosure in South African society; it is the preserve of the privileged. The rest of society is effectively regulated to the position of outsiders residing in an “undercommons”; one that mirrors the historical – and current – race, class and power dynamics of South African society.
So what if we had to re-imagine the university as a shared resource within a broader South African society? That is; what if we were to re-imagine the university as part of the real commons of South African society, and not the privatised, exclusive, ivory tower institutions that they currently are?
One of the hallmarks of a shared public resource is the measure of public access to it. Another is the measure of public interaction with it as an everyday public facility to which they – the public – can look to for a variety of supportive functions that are enabled by the platforms that a university hosts and maintains.
Moreover, the extent to which the functions of the university are embedded within the local society that it is a part of – i.e. through its physical presence, as well as the role it plays in employment, skills development, education, innovation, disruption, outreach, networking and problem-solving – and what roles these functions play in addressing the transformation that South African society aspires to as a whole, is paramount when considering the relevance of the university as a member of the greater commons.
A lot has been made about the question of how to go about funding free education, and whether it is possible. The Minister for Higher Education’s position, shared by some, is that universal free access to education means “freebies for the rich”. The most recent rebuttal to the doubters has proposed a tax for the super-wealthy in South Africa; a proposal that seems reasonable given the drastic levels of inequality that prevails in South African society. This call mirrors those that have been made by #FeesMustFall protesters around the world, and there is also great resonance and overlap with the demands of Occupy movement protesters in this respect.
Yet there is more that can be done. Instead of operating on a fee-basis to manage university margins; institutions could offer free education, but appeal to families to make annual donations, for which they receive tax exemptions, giving people the freedom to make larger donations. So can the private sector. That is, the institution could adopt a “sharing economy” approach; i.e. they take donations, but do not charge fees, and both individuals and organisations in society would be able to effectively steer a portion of their taxes towards a priority cause. This would constitute a direct strengthening of the social contract between higher education institutions and the society’s in which they are located and function within. It would also fundamentally re-orientate universities as a shared societal responsibility.
The institutions of higher education would then have to operate on a fundamentally different basis; they would have to make themselves more relevant to society, as well as to become more interconnected within society as a whole. This could be a first significant step away from the commodification of education; the notion that universities should be “run as a business”. It could also help counter what has come to be known – in the pejorative sense – as “the professionalization of the university”.
By making universities more directly dependent on society – and its broader ecology – and not just on its fees, private sector funders, private donor funders and government funds, it might be possible to shift universities into new behavioural modes and initiate the transition towards a different – essentially historically, culturally and economically decolonised university, and higher education sector in the long term.
Reorienting institutions of higher education within society, in terms of its functions, processes, controls, organisations, platforms and identity, may require the ‘university’ to share more of itself with society; from its land, to its property, technologies, learning platforms (such as libraries) and so forth. Why is it that it is so rare that ‘university’ libraries are outright shared with the public, for example? When universities see themselves as predominantly national and regional facilities, located within particular local contexts that it should play a full role within, then a new model of university might start to emerge.
Leadership and Transformative Change:
We need to be able to envision this future. We need to imagine it as a reality; living breathing, functioning physically, ‘processually’ and holistically as a public space. We need to place ourselves within the reality we seek to create; the role of learning in society need to embrace a bold multidimensional role. “Why not build universities in the slums? Within twenty years they will no longer be slums; they will be viable neighbourhoods” one representative of Medellin City begged of me, rhetorically, at a conference of city mayors from across the world that I once attended.
We need Vice Chancellors and leaders in education that are “Enrique Penalosa’s” of education; people who have the vision to enable a new future for South African institutions of higher learning, to bring about a true evolution of them, and to thereby revolutionise how it relates to society and is located within it.
At a more practical level, they can take the lead in streamlining university bureaucracies and changing the way they interact with students and the public. The dismissive, inefficient, insensitive university bureaucracy – where ironically administration staff are often paid more than academics – needs to become a thing of the past.
University bureaucracies require radical interventions to disentangle them and make them student – and academic – facing, because currently they appear to take little responsibility, even for the very administrative tasks it is tasked with; hence the widespread wholesale internal outsourcing of administrative and project management duties to overburdened and stressed academics themselves.
They can also embrace ICT the way it is supposed to be used i.e. to increase efficiency, transparency and use-ability. Instead, many universities adopted ICT systems while retaining paper trails because their policies required it. This means that instead of ICT improving efficiencies, it acts as an add-on to existing paper-based systems. Moreover, different departments all appear to have different administration systems, financial systems etc. This is clearly a terrible waste of money and resources and is an area in which savings can be made to the benefit of the university.
Universities can also expand their fee-based offerings to sectors of society that require skills development, vocational training and specialised education services. They already run a number of courses, etc. that target corporate, government and other institutions and organisations, and generate revenue from them. This is how a lot of institutes generate revenue, and it helps make them more relevant within society and to society’s challenges.
There are multiple challenges that need to be addressed, which require cooperation between different ministries and levels of governance. Take, for example, the phenomenon of students and gentrification. Students, and the areas they live and recreate in, are made safe, creative and invigorated through their presence, as well as becoming more economically active and viable as well.
However, the attractiveness of student areas make them ideal sites for gentrification, which in turn drives rentals up, disproportionately affecting students (and their families) who cannot afford to absorb such price fluctuations in living expenses. Some kind of mechanism is required to protect students and their families from the forces of market speculation that render their household budgets precarious. This is clearly an area in which national, provincial and local governments can work together to develop policy innovations that enable a set of protections for students and their families from unregulated property market dynamics.
The state can also set up arrangements where public service can serve as avenues through which students ‘pay back’ their debt to a society that has funded their educations. This may yield a host of desirable emergent outcomes in public service institutions; primarily by populating their ranks with skilled young people who can generate new ideas and innovations in public service; something that is desperately needed in the staid, top-down styled public service bureaucracies that dominate the public sphere in South Africa. Moreover, youth unemployment is at an all-time high; yet one obvious entry point into employment – the state – has not been adequately utilised. Universities themselves and the private sector can also seek such arrangements.
Young people who earn become valuable drivers of an economy; they consume, buy property, acquire assets and boost productivity. Saddling them with debt that they are likely to struggle to repay, especially when facing such high national unemployment levels, and structural factors that render them marginally fluid, often indebted, or precariously balanced between the two. Surely it is in the public good, and with multiple benefits for society – including; a healthy economic growth and an increased pace of socio-economic (i.e. class and racial) transformation, as well as a faster growing middle class that can counter inequality, renew the social contract – and stabilise the socio-political realm as a result.
Access to debt free higher education is, in 21st Century South Africa, perhaps the most ambitious of national goals that South Africa can set itself. And if the majority of society – and especially the majority of the youth – come to feel that this is a matter of such high national significance, that it needs to be prioritised and resourced by the state in conjunction with other sectors in society, then surely it should, democratically, be raised as a priority of national significance worthy of focussed attention and coordinated action between different ministries and spheres of government, as well as the other sectors that make up society. If government departments and the private sector could work together to see us through a soccer world cup, surely they can focus on the goal of working towards free education for all? Or at least get started …
Establishing Consensus – A Referendum:
The question of rendering institutions of higher learning as objects of state-aided entities that enjoy widespread philanthropic support, in order to service a key national priority, could be decided by referendum. Indeed; what stops us from holding a national debate and referendum on the issue? Given the levels of disruption and uncertainty prevailing over the future of the institutions of higher education, perhaps a referendum could help bring about a sense of agreement within society as a whole. Free education was promised in 1994 and pledged at the ANC’s Polokwane conference in 2007, so even the ruling party have a vested interest in raising its profile as a national priority. It is difficult to understand why this option has not yet been proposed, either by government or student activists. It is a democratic step forward towards obtaining consensus and establishing the way forward.
The precedent that a referendum would set in decision-making over issues of national priority is worth considering. It would establish a framework for; debating the importance of universal free access to education, proposing ideas for how it could be achieved, and on what conditions, and brokering consensus by drawing on broad-based public interaction. This can have far-reaching long term implications for how decisions are made over national resources, and what role the public can play in them.
The Future – A Transformed State and Society:
How the higher education sector transforms itself, over the next five years, will determine what kind of future it has in the medium and long-terms in South Africa. The crisis within it has been brewing for the past two decades of democratic rule, but has roots in the Apartheid society that the ‘new’ South Africa inherited. What is clear, is that even providing free education is not enough to actualise the decolonisation of the university – as a resource of the commons, one whose existence is for the public good – rather, a radical re-imagining of the university is necessary. This can only occur if there are creative strategies that mobilise public support towards the goal of free education for all.
The greater implications of the transformation of this sector, is what it means for the other sectors in society. It may herald a transformation of the state, the private sector and civil society that otherwise may not have been adequately demonstrated as a working concept. It may mean that a wholly new politics is established in the South African political realm, and with it a wholly new polis that becomes its engine over time. It has the potential to spark a substantive transition that has multiplying effects in South African society in the medium to long terms.
 Note that the ‘university’ and ‘higher education institutions’ are used interchangeably in this piece for simplicity, notwithstanding the detailed differences that can be raised regarding their capacities, roles and functions within society.
 Enrique Penalosa was the mayor of Bogota in Columbia who radically re-envisioned public access for the majority poor through public transportation and urban design, and implemented it successfully.