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Universities need introspection by Nomalanga Mkhize (Dispatch Live), 04 October 2016

5 October 2016

It has been a turbulent two weeks at South African campuses as the fees issue re-emerged with vigour.

Universities have pointed fingers at the state, which has under-funded higher education for the past 20 years.

Establishing a Fees Commission is a waste of time.

It is self-evident that the average South African household cannot afford to send a child to university at an annual cost of R80000 – whether by going into debt or by some other means.

In trying to manage the volatility, various segments of university management, staff and student groupings have been trying to find workable terms for “facilitation” and “negotiation” but so far, the impasse on the fees issue remains intractable.

The universities cannot meet the fees-related demands made by the students

However, while the state is ultimately responsible, universities must also introspect about their own role in fostering not only the commodification of education but also the steady erosion and weakening of the “intellectual” mandate of the university.

Firstly, the excessive securitisation of campuses has created a sense that militant protest is tantamount to criminality.

While universities are legally bound to demonstrate that they have taken steps to secure occupants and employees, they also have to exercise a measure of restraint in how they deploy security teams in a space meant to foster “free thinking”.

Secondly, managers and academics need to address pre-existing internal dynamics that created deep faultlines of institutional mistrust prior to #Fallism, some of these faultlines such as institutional racism led to the emergence of the first wave of #Fallism.

While public debate on internal problems in universities has tended to focus on racism and gender discrimination, there is also a lot more that eats away at the credibility of universities.

Students at Wits University have clashed with police at the institution

Corruption, nepotism, exploitation, abuse of power and fraudulent academic practice are widespread in our universities and our students hear about these things, or become victims of these practices.

In our institutions, some of the most vociferous critics of #FeesMustFall have themselves likely been implicated in regressive behaviours in the universities.

Students experience and bear witness to hypocritical behaviour by university staff and yet have little power and recourse to hold us accountable.

The most obvious example is the failure of the formerly white universities to advance transformation.

Why should students believe management and staff can be trusted with a united position on fees when we have failed dismally to take a united position on transformation?

Thirdly, universities have degraded their own intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of students by steadily advancing corporatisation that accords greater power to bureaucratisation over and above the academic ethos.

When human resource directors wield greater power than professors, do not expect that students will respect academic endeavour.

Quite frankly, universities have been losing a sense of their intellectual gravitas before buildings were petrol-bombed by alleged rogue students.

I do not here imply that students are blameless martyrs, but would suggest to universities that to rebuild trust we must start by acknowledging our own self-created failures.

At this point, we need to pause on fixating on where we sit in the international rankings, and which research grants have been awarded to our institutions and ask more fundamental questions: What is the purpose of a university and the academic project?

What is the intellectual and ethical responsibility of the university to society?

The questions are sociological and so too must the answers be.

From that point we ought to proceed in engaging the long-term implications of #FeesMustFall and attempt to build trust from our own meaningful and purposeful actions within the universities.