STIAS consultation on South African higher education in a global context

11 October 2016


At its annual two day meeting in March 2016 the STIAS Academic Advisory Board had an in-depth discussion about the landscape of South African higher education in a global context, following lead-in presentations by Professors Bert van der Zwaan (Utrecht University) and Shireen Hassim (University of the Witwatersrand).  The Board recommended that STIAS initiate a process which could underpin a longer term research project on the future of South African higher education with due consideration of the global context.

With this in mind a group chaired by Professor Peter Vale (University of Johannesburg) convened at STIAS on 26 and 27 September 2016 and what follows is a draft report compiled by Ms Michelle Galloway (part-time media officer at STIAS). This report is currently under discussion by the participants (see below) to serve as input for a STIAS concept note (also explained below) which will then provide the framework for the envisaged project.

Draft report


On 26 and 27 September 2016 STIAS held a consultation involving stakeholders from the higher education sector to look at the possibilities of developing a longer-term research agenda on higher education in the global context. The meeting was designed as a ‘consultation’ (or brainstorming session) aimed at formulating a proposal of preliminary ideas towards advising STIAS on various aspects of a research programme over the next few years which could systematically respond to the current challenges in higher education. The consultation aimed to examine this area, which is currently a high-level crisis situation in South Africa, as a possibility for a longer-term STIAS research theme. STIAS research themes are usually projects lasting up to three years and examine a key area that would benefit from consistent engagement, research and analysis.

The group involved 15 stakeholders from the sector representing universities from across the country. Written inputs were also received from stakeholders unable to attend the meeting. The broad issues discussed included: What higher education should be in an ideal world; What a university is for?; Who a university is for?; What the possibilities and constraints are for fulfilment of the ideal vision?; and, Dealing with the current crisis.

What higher education should be in an ideal world and some of the challenges

The discussions of the purpose of universities/higher education encompassed the history of universities; their relationship to society; their relationship to local and global change; technological advancements; the civic role and embeddedness of universities within society; and, questions around who they serve.

These issues were discussed within the context of what a university should be, currently is and can be.

The group overall described a university as a public good, an intellectual home and a space for critical engagement.

The dichotomy between public and private good was also discussed. The higher education system is a public good but the individual receives from it private good. This highlights a need for more creative synergy between the public and private good.

Participants expressed the vision of a university as an ethical community – a vision which, to some extent, has collapsed due to issues of competitiveness, isolation, the decline of collegiate values and a narrow view of achievement. It was stressed that universities should be at the forefront of social change, empowerment and advancement. They should be places where knowledge is generated that can impact on social injustice and should contribute to the development of a less-hierarchical, ‘good’ society which includes redistribution and democracy.

It was stressed that universities should be bastions of social enquiry without limits, and a home for the intellect based on values. As such, universities must be able to understand and consistently explore their contribution to society. They must be generators of new knowledge, free thinking, experimentation and failure. The need for universities to promote scholarship as well as active and engaged citizens was emphasised.

Typically successful (highly ranked) international universities have both resources (whether public or private) and autonomy – with the resources maintaining the autonomy.

It was stressed that the current worldwide challenge to universities must be situated and understood within the context of the broader changes to the global capitalist system and the growth of neo-liberalism. A university operates within a framework of both universal and contextual values. Glabally universities are facing a change from elite to ‘massified’ institutions. Even in developed countries students are losing faith in the traditional view of universities as elitist institutions and in the existing structures. Within the South African context there is the additional imperative to balance transformation issues against these challenges.

The context in which learning occurs is rapidly changing and higher education must adapt and respond. If universities cannot adapt to this changing world and acknowledge their own failings they could become redundant.

However, universities are reservoirs of knowledge with a way of thinking that is robust and rigorous and involves critical engagement – this should be harnessed to tackle the current challenges and to develop graduates with the potential to be change agents.

It was, however, also stressed that universities do not fulfil the same role for all graduates – some will become future thought leaders while others see higher education purely as the means to a more marketable skills set (a toolkit) for future employment opportunities. There remains a high premium on higher education in South Africa – and a degree or diploma still has a huge impact on future employment opportunities. Recent work has shown a gap in how universities approach student success, with too little attention on preparing students for the transition from university to work. There is work being done to support students in the transition from school to university, but research demonstrates how difficult graduates (even from advantaged backgrounds and institutions) find the transition from university to employment. Universities must therefore not become divorced from the pragmatic, real-life needs of graduates and the structures and pedagogy must accommodate different expectations.

Access to education has also, to an extent, become commodified by the rise of private universities and access to information via the Internet, etc. With the rapid generation of knowledge, universities need to become more focused on transferring adaptable skills (including social and relational skills) rather than the dominant pedagogical model which is focused on disciplinary content transfer. It is also clear that, in some areas, course content has not kept pace with changing global priorities (such as climate change).

To remain relevant, universities need to inculcate skills and cultural practices that educate students beyond disciplinary knowledge. This implies a need to understand fully the social, cultural and economic role of the university.

There is also a need to understand how the different stakeholders (students, academics, management/administration, professional staff) perceive and act out their power and how institutional culture is shaped by (power) relations?

Reflections on the current crisis

In discussion of the current crisis, participants emphasised the need to look at the issue of access and how universities serve some social groupings more than others. Participants also emphasised the need to link the crisis to the political crisis in the country. There is a diversity of experience and an overwhelming sense that the ‘promised land’ has not materialised for many groups and individuals.

There is a need to critically rethink and reframe the issue of inequality – the way in which it has been framed is in itself an injustice. As a society we need to critically reflect on issues of privilege and power, race, geography and intergenerational dynamics. There is both inequality in access as well as inequality in ‘survival’ once within the university structure. Students from less-privileged backgrounds are constantly ‘catching up’ and not receiving the same level of experience due to the legacy of their poor basic education as well as the challenges of daily survival in situations of relative deprivation.

We have broadened access without increasing the resources and this goes beyond just fees. The system was not prepared to handle the increased numbers leading to unrealistic expectations and frustration. Higher education is under-funded, with a decline in government funding leading to more institutional competition and rising fees. This is also fuelled by international rankings. This means growing managerialism, leading to staff and student alienation from the institution.

There is also a need to recognise that university management, academics and students have not found ways to communicate constructively. In many cases the university leadership has reacted in crisis mode without developing critical engagement, and ‘punishment’ from the authorities merely deals with the symptoms not the underlying issues.

The call for free education is very real but is a symbol for many other things – even if free education was possible and granted immediately, the crisis wouldn’t end – the alienation of groups and individuals within the system would continue.

Emphasis was also placed on the role of the media, particularly social media, as both agitator and commentator on events. One participant pointed out that truth has become a casualty in the context of the media reporting of the crisis. There has not been opportunity for full critical engagement with the issues and very few media have been interested in thorough background investigation.

It was emphasised that any work in this area must include the student voice in a process of engagement.

The changing landscape

The group highlighted three domains for critical thinking – the official/governance domain, the pedagogy domain and the student/social domain.

There was recognition of the need to activate universities in terms of resources and funding models. There is also a need to conceptualise universities in terms of their interconnectedness, mobility, the power relations within and between society, and inter-disciplinarities.

The current crisis was described as the tip of the iceberg with the structural and conceptual issues hidden below the surface. Structural issues highlighted included:

  • injustice
  • inequality
  • anger
  • access
  • privilege
  • consciousness
  • market-based logistics
  • self-affirming debates
  • cross-cultural understanding
  • hierarchies
  • governance
  • democracy

while the conceptual issues highlighted included:

  • universities as public good
  • universities as a private good
  • universities as an alienating space (socially and economically)
  • the market
  • democracy

The participants identified the following questions as requiring critical enquiry/research:

1)      What are the conditions threatening the notion of higher education/universities as a public good?

2)      What are the implications of universities as a private good?

3)      Under what conditions are public and private good compatible/good bedfellows?

4)      Is it possible to see higher education as a public good in a different concept of the market/conceptual model? What would the public good shopping basket include?

5)      How does higher education contribute to an equal society?

6)      To what extent can higher education contribute to destroying hierarchies? Should it? (including examining which hierarchies are useful or helpful in higher education)

7)      How fruitful is it to think of a university as incomplete? Can a university ever be complete (at the management/governance, social/student and pedagogy levels)?

8)      What role does higher education play in dealing with issues of justice? How do you define a ‘just’ university?

9)      How does higher education influence/affect/engage social capital? (including shifts in social capital and ubuntu)

10)   How do the following factors affect higher education – the state, the markets, the consumers, the basic schooling system, popular culture?

11)   Is it useful to develop critical consciousness as an essential part of a university?

12)   What are the possibilities of creating a university as a safe space for uncomfortable questions?

13)   When is essence of essence and when is it important to be brought into conversation with consciousness?

14)   What are the outcomes of technology? In what way are technologies appropriate for pedagogy (including the intended and unintended consequences/outcomes of access to technology)?

15)   To what extent are universities an irresistible bed of nails? (including the issue of white privilege/how we make a case for a more level playing field)

16)   Do universities need a radically different structure?

17)   How do universities deal with the tensions between local and universal knowledge?/How do universities deal with different forms of knowledge?

Way forward

The group decided to publish the outcomes of the discussions as well as the discussion paper by Frederick White and Johan van Zyl on funding of tertiary education after it had been revised following the discussion and input during the consultation.

It was also decided to develop a STIAS concept note (similar to those which set the agenda for other longer term research projects at STIAS – see ) which will also act as a wider invitation to engage/continue the conversation.

List of invitees and participants

Hugh Amoore (University of Cape Town)

Ahmed Bawa (Universities South Africa) – invited but unavailable

Jan Botha (Stellenbosch University)

Chrissie Boughey (Rhodes University)

Michael Cross (University of Johannesburg)

Magda Fourie-Malherbe (Stellenbosch University) – invited but unavailable

Michelle Galloway (STIAS)

Hendrik Geyer (STIAS)

Johann Groenwald (STIAS)

Kirk Helliker (Rhodes University)

David Hornsby (University of the Witwatersrand)

Lis Lange (University of the Free State)

Bernard Lategan (STIAS)

Jeffrey Mabelebele (University of Limpopo) – invited but unavailable

Achille Mbembe (University of the Witwatersrand) – invited but unavailable

Njabulo Ndebele (University of Cape Town & STIAS) – invited but unavailable

Francis Nyamnjoh (University of Cape Town)

Christoff Pauw (STIAS)

Tyrone Pretorius (University of the Western Cape) – invited but unavailable

Daya Reddy (University of Cape Town) – invited but unavailable

Ihron Rensburg (University of Johannesburg) – invited but unavailable

Suellen Shay (University of Cape Town)

Derrick Swartz (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University) – invited but unavailable

Peter Vale (University of Johannesburg)

Yusef Waghid (Stellenbosch University) – invited but unavailable

Frederick White (SANLAM)

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STIAS is a creative space for the mind.