ASAWU Report on The Second Higher Education Transformation Summit: Day 1 15th October 2015

The Second Higher Education Transformation Summit: Durban’s ICC

Day One: 15th October 2015

Durban: an unseasonably grey and chilly spring day.

Higher education ‘stakeholders’ from all over the country have woken up at ungodly hours to make it to the International Convention Centre on time for the 9am start for the second ever Transformation  in Higher Education in South Africa conference. For Wits staff and students wondering where their VC was, at a time of major turmoil on campus over fee increases, we can confirm that he was indeed spotted at the ICC, in the flesh, often on the phone. (More about how the Wits protests entered the day’s conversation, later).

VCs, Council members, Senators, students’ representatives and others from across South Africa had gathered to convene with government Higher Education representatives. The topic: transformation. Before the opening plenary began – fashionably late of course – small groups of powerful university men huddled between the rows of conference desks set up in – what else? – schoolroom style rows, to swap stories. (Later on, you’ll see those same ‘big men’ comically huddled over impossibly small cocktail plates at the canapé luncheon.) Even bigger men were scheduled to speak, and the air was abuzz with important, difficult questions about how, 21 years after democracy, the Higher Education Sector should go about redressing the wrongs wrought by apartheid. It’s a three-day convention; Day One delivered in terms of ventilation, if not transformation…


A Generation Gap

A key feature of the day’s conversation was the marked generation gap between those speaking down and those speaking up. From the artfully designed plenary stage (where white leather couches were brought on and off to set each scene), representatives from government, trans-institutional organizations and funding bodies (the 1976 generation) delivered from on high their views on transformation, after having been escorted in, and then out, by phalanxes of bodyguards. What was, rather hopefully, expected was for the gathered to quietly listen and ask respectful questions. It didn’t pan out that way. When discussion time allowed, a powerful voices from the student grassroots (the 2015 #hashtag generation) rose up to meet, question and challenge the established wisdom from the liberation struggle generation.


But What Have We Done?

A phenomenal sense of national student solidarity became evident towards the end of the first plenary, when a student leader from UCT’s Rhodes Must Fall movement appropriated a Q&A session. Standing on a chair with microphone in hand, a young black woman read a statement from the Wits SRC about student occupation and actions on our campus. What, the statement asked, had they done to be born poor? What had they done to be financially excluded? It was the first time that the 10.5 percent student fee hike was raised. It was to be raised many times as the day proceeded.

Later, a spokesperson from Rhodes’ Black Student Movement spoke up to eloquently challenge the top-down arrangement of the convention: stop speaking down to us, she begged, and start speaking with us instead! Resounding applause, and then the panel chair’s exhortations to be dignified and mindful of time… sigh. Nevertheless, inspiring: a number of brilliant student leaders from all over the nation used plenary discussion space to make their voices heard, loud and clear, emphasizing the need for a new form of politics. By the end of the day, feeling alienated and patronized by organized attempts to silence and discipline them from the platform, students had organized into a bloc at the back, ready to speak up and challenge the establishment that had held the platform for most of the proceedings.


Marbles in Mouth

Much as the division between the establishment of 76 and the #hashtag generation framed the day’s events, what stalked almost every interaction was the question of funding. If you want to see, in crystal clear detail, how the tertiary education sector is underfunded then look no further than the Department of Higher Education’s own analysis. The document demonstrates how there has been improvements in a number of educational measures such as access and throughput, but also how this rests on an increasingly precarious financial foundations.

The problem of funding is now so obviously that nobody could pretend that this elephant wasn’t in the room. But the elephant was approached differently. The Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, who opened events, explained that there needed to be a balance between young South African’s hunger for education and financial constraints. The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, got to the point: there isn’t, he said, enough money. But he put less emphasis on the need for balance and rather more on squeezing something from nothing. He criticised universities for conducting themselves like companies when they cut loss making parts of the operations. His own discipline of Sociology, along with other social sciences were essential, but were at risk of being axed as unprofitable. Indeed, he has established the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences to prevent their demise. Perhaps there is a connection between a funding crunch and universities acting like companies?

And, along similar lines, the Minister lambasted universities for outsourcing support services. What, he wanted to know, was non-core about cleaning? Was dirt now core to universities’ mission?  He demanded to know why universities had chosen outsource cleaning and plunged thousands of workers into poverty. But you don’t need too sophisticated tools of analysis to answer that question. It’s about money.


But What Else Can We Do?

In a lucid, funny and sometimes passionate address, Professor Derrick Swartz, VC of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, speaking on behalf of Universities South Africa, outlined that universities had to raise fees to cover costs. There was, he pointed out, a direct link to the subsidy received from government and the fees that they had to charge. No VC or university Council, he affirmed, felt good about raising fees. But what else could they do?


#10.5 Percent

By the end of the day, the students were examining their elders. And they made it clear that an answer of 10.5 percent was not going to secure a pass mark to the question of ‘What should be done?’ Before we had finished, 10.5 percent had come to symbolise all that is wrong in the Higher Education Sector; a point of reference for the #hashtag generation. Wits was chucked in the sin bin along with Stellenbosch and other universities that have dragged their feet over transformation.


And in Tomorrow’s Episode…

On the agenda for the second day of the Summit is a session on students’ perspective. Expect a change in seating arrangements as the student bloc takes the platform. In the afternoon we will be splitting into four commissions: the institutional environment; access and success; research and engagement; and leadership, management and governance. Expect pretty much anything.


Do say: Transformation Not Ventilation.

Don’t say: 10.5 percent.


Brought to you by the Wits Higher Education Transformation Summit Report Team

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