Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Some thoughts on the crisis in higher education

The recently released Council on Higher Education (CHE) report on the state of higher education in South Africa is ringing alarm bells all over the country at universities, as may be expected, given the dismal picture it paints of the higher education landscape. Understandably, school education is implicated, and identified as the main reason for the dismal performance of students at universities. This should surprise no one – the ravages of OBE regarding learning are understandable. And I mean LEARNING. If teachers spend the bulk of their time on assessment and administrative tasks, who can expect true learning to take place?

The day after the report’s release I was listening to a discussion of its findings on SAfm’s After 8 Debate, with Prof. Ian Scott of UCT and Dr Nico Jooste of NMMU as “expert” guests of the ever-intelligent and eloquent Tsepiso Makwetla . What struck me was that the discussion (to which I had to stop listening at about 08h45), while interrogating the possible reasons for the disturbing statistics – such as the fact that most black students had to study through the medium of a second language, the racial discrepancies in access and completion figures, and the differences in material circumstances among students of different racial backgrounds – lacked one crucial element, a broader context.

No matter how much one compares statistics here and abroad in relation to “benchmarks”, pointing out that South Africa is not the only country facing problems of so-called “throughput”, as long as the global context is not factored in, the picture will be incomplete. The discussants sometimes moved in this direction, such as when they talked about the implications and consequences of the poverty in which many students live, at school as well as at university, but they never really got to what, I believe, is most important to understand the present situation.

There are two sides to what I mean by “context” here. The one is the fact that the global context within which students live and study, is one fraught with all manner of ecological, social, political and economic problems – one which does not exactly inspire confidence about the future. And students are aware of this; if not always explicitly and in a well-informed manner, then at least at an intuitive level that derives from their occasional exposure to world news through some of the media that comprise an important part of their world. To be aware of this, is demotivating, and I don’t think this was really taken into account.

Let me illustrate what I mean. In the course of this year, I have talked to several students who dropped out of university. Without exception, the reason was not because they lacked funding, or even that they were performing so badly that they could not expect to graduate, although they did confess that they found some of their subjects boring. The one who came closest to articulating what was bothering him/them, put it rather graphically. He more or less said: “What’s the point of studying if the whole world is fucked up [his actual words] anyway? I see no sense to it – I’d rather surf, sit on the beach, play my didgeridoo and smoke pot!” I tried to persuade him that, precisely when one feels that things are falling apart, it is time to prepare oneself as well as possible through learning, to be able to do something constructive about the situation, but he laughed it off.

The other side of the relevant context is more intellectually oriented regarding the (natural and human) sciences, and I can describe it best by relating it to my own experience as a university teacher. Comparatively speaking, there is a gulf between the good universities in especially the Northern hemisphere (and this has nothing to do with Eurocentrism) and ours in South Africa, one that has to do with intellectual rigour and academic commitment. And this has consequences for students’ academic development. I know, because during the time I spent at Yale University in the US as a postdoctoral fellow, I learnt more about philosophy (and related disciplines like psychoanalysis) than I had learnt in all my years of studying from first year to finishing my doctor’s degree in South Africa.

Why? As many academics know, the doctoral programmes are structured very differently at universities in the US and Europe compared to master’s and doctoral studies here. In brief, and allowing for some differences from one university to the next in the US, their bachelor’s degrees are usually four-year courses, and after completing this (AND after passing the difficult examination which gives you the green light for applying for acceptance), when you are finally accepted into a doctoral programme, a very difficult and strenuous time awaits you. Students usually (given minor differences) have to complete 3 or 4 years of coursework (altogether something like 12 courses), but unlike the coursework master’s programmes in South Africa, some of which are lightweight, this is no plain sailing.

Sometimes, in addition to the term paper for the course, an examination is required for completing it, but – and here’s the rub – the term papers are expected to be of such a high standard that they are in principle publishable, as indicated by the fact that you are expected to get an A (which is the equivalent of 90% in South Africa; an A+ being equal to 95% here). This means that, in the human sciences, by the time you have finished your coursework and are preparing for the “Comps” (comprehensive exams), you know how to do research and write well.

The Comps cover pretty much anything and everything in your discipline, and you don’t know what to expect. You usually get a whole day to write these. If you pass, you have permission to prepare for your doctoral examination, which usually takes at least a year, with the examination covering the entire, broad terrain of your dissertation-theme focus. If you pass this exam, you can start preparing your research proposal (for your doctoral dissertation), which is usually submitted and defended before faculty (as well as an outside authority) about a year after passing the doctoral exam – although it could be a shorter time. If your proposal is accepted, you can embark on writing the dissertation.

Many doctoral students (in philosophy and the other human sciences) don’t finish this tough programme in the minimum time, often stretching it by several years, if they don’t drop out altogether. But if they finish it, as one may expect, they know their chosen field pretty well. By contrast, my experience of students coming from a coursework master’s programme at South African universities are not anywhere nearly as well prepared to write a doctoral dissertation (here called a thesis) as in the US.

To mention but one thing – whether in philosophy, literature, sociology, psychology, political science, anthropology, art history, etc. – everyone is expected to have mastered the range of theories known as “critical theory” by the time they finish their master’s degree. These include phenomenology, structuralism, different varieties of poststructuralism (such as deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and Foucaultian genealogy), Marxism, neo-marxism, hermeneutics and others. This cannot be presupposed in South Africa, as I have discovered even among academic staff members.

Although the above pertains mostly to postgraduate studies, the same is true at undergraduate level. Instead of equipping students with the indispensable theoretical tools to progress with increasing understanding in their degree courses, preparing them for postgraduate studies, time is often frittered away with “life-skills” that have little to do with what one needs to survive intellectually at university. In a nutshell: the requisite intellectual-theoretical context is not adequately addressed at South African universities, which is, as far as I can judge, a major factor for dismal graduation rates.

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