Opinion

Universities are being transformed into degree factories

03 August 2017 - 06:55
Students walking outside the Great Hall, Wits University. File photo.
Students walking outside the Great Hall, Wits University. File photo.
Image: Sihle Maku

In its very essence, a university is and should be a place marked by reason, deliberation and the free exchange of ideas.

It upholds no dogma, which makes it different from a church. It follows no ideology, which makes it different from a political party. It requires no loyalty, which makes it different from a team sport. In the university, multiple voices are and should be heard without fear of reprisal.

And throughout, rival ideas are subject to criticism and engagement marked by the absence of personal insult or pointed disdain. It is, moreover, a place in which the right to speak is upheld, especially when the speaker differs from the majority view or any other view.

This space is a leveller where the voice of the worker matters as much, and should matter as much, as the voice of the professor. It is in this space where current and future leaders learn the habits of democracy such as the power of thought and considered action to alter human futures. When muscle replaces the mind, and rage displaces reason, then the very idea of a university is at stake.

Nobody dare shut down the minority opinion or the voice of dissent on the basis of race, class, gender, religion or any other identity, chosen or assigned. To announce the silencing of any campus citizen for whatever reason is inherently anti-democratic. To denounce non-conformist ideas is nothing less than anti-intellectual. In the university, outrageous and even offensive speech is challenged but not banned, condemned but not subjected to violence in the response. For the strength of a democracy is measured by its capacity to uphold the values and virtues of freedom without sinking to the level of the offender.

Bad or hurtful ideas cannot be legislated into oblivion, let alone imprisoned. The standard for decent and acceptable behaviour is set by embedding democratic and rights cultures on campus and in communities, for they surely cannot be attained by the authority of the courts or the pronouncements of official commissions.

When muscle replaces the mind, and rage displaces reason, then the very idea of a university is at stake.

Those who enter university classrooms with whips and approach artworks with fire threaten not only the rights of others and the freedom of expression but trample on the idea of the university by shutting down the space for deliberation. When these values and virtues go, a university is reduced to a sausage machine which processes tens of thousands of young people through anaemic curricula whose sole purpose is to prepare oven-ready automatons for the job market.

Such universities produce graduates devoid of ethics or without the capacity for higher-level thinking; these "outputs" of the system tend to slavishly follow the latest slogans rather than to render suspect opportunistic terms lobbed into the public arena, such as "radical economic transformation" or "white monopoly capital" or "decolonisation".

What makes a university is not, therefore, the mere production of thousands of units called "outputs" intended to maximise subsidy income from the government. Such pressure inevitably leads to unethical practices - such as lowering admissions standards or publishing low-quality research in in-house journals - for the sole purpose of making more money.

Under these conditions the university becomes a factory where standardised units of work matter more than quality, depth, reach and impact. What you now have is a dangerous collusion where academics are complicit in the commercialisation of academic work that exists hand-in-hand with the crudification of the political discourse on campuses.

A university should be a place where inquisitive minds come together in the search for meaning. To contemplate the most complex and pressing issues of the time, such as inequality and incivility. To seek urgent answers to questions such as: "Why are we so violent?" or: "How can we scale up deep change across all public schools with the resources available?"

Campus ought to be a place where younger and older minds probe elusive questions such as: "Who are we really?" and: "What is the good life?" University should be an interruption between the drudgery of school life and the rat race of working life. A place to experiment, think for yourself and, yes, be outrageous.

Slowly but surely South African universities are being changed into something else. Teaching is about coverage. Learning is for the exams. Research is for the marketplace. Graduates are about jobs. Leaders become mere managers. And politics is about shutting up speakers and shutting down classes.

In one recent week, university managers came to campus with bulletproof vests. A medical school has stopped the training of doctors. A whole campus was shut down for days on end for the umpteenth time in the academic year. And a scandal was exposed about academics publishing in predatory journals while wholesale plagiarism by lecturers is alleged on another campus.

Under these circumstances an organisation can call itself many things, but not a university.

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