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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.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Call for Honesty Call for Honesty 24 August 2013

    Here is an earlier post:

    One can blame each level of education from tertiary to secondary to primary. However the problem starts at home and with the family situation and involvement. A good friend who was dean at Medunsa told me about trying to introduce parental involvement as an entry requirement for students. He found that students who were encouraged by their parents (not manipulated or bribed) were more likely to complete their medical studies even when they came from poor homes.

    If a good educational foundation is laid in a caring home, where father and mother stimulate their children by reading and encouraging questions, a child is much better prepared for all levels of education. A willy-nilly handing out of money/bursaries is a recipe for disaster. My children were all privileged to attend and gain good university degrees but they had to pay their own way and work hard. It started at school where they delivered newspapers to pay for extra useful subjects.

    A child who has worked hard, often despite attending the worst school, is far more likely to succeed at university and in life. No one can play a more important role in building character and shaping attitude in a child than the parents. The failure usually begins here and is simply compounded at each successive level of education – something few will ever manage to escape or reverse.

    Why is this not seen in important reports?

  2. melvin melvin 24 August 2013

    Students performance in universities in africa is very low and the governing bodies are not taking education quit seriously as they do in America.

  3. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 24 August 2013

    Four points, to kick off. As many more will no doubt comment here, the home is the first place anyone receives education. Parents who have not been educated themselves are unlikely to see any value in educating their children. (Of course there are exceptions: my mother was one.)

    You don’t start educating people at higher level. You start at primary level.

    The dropout who would rather smoke pot on the beach is a square peg in a round hole. He bears out the first two points above. Learning anything starts with wanting to, being put to it, seeing the value of it, or a combination of all three.

    Kids also grow up in groups. Wasn’t there a slogan a while back? – liberation before education? How long do you think it will take to rid society of that legacy – to ‘re-educate’ the rebellious young?

  4. Maria Maria 24 August 2013

    Bert, this brings back memories of hard work and wonderful conversations at Yale – remember Naples Pizza (Love at First Bite), and chatting to Jodie Foster about movies at the Law School cafeteria? But you’re right; I am not the greatest fan of American foreign policy (I know you’re not either), and yet one has to admit that their Ivy League Schools as well as some other institutions of higher learning are among the best in the world, and worth emulating.

    @Call for Honesty: I agree with you that the home is the basis of a sound education, provided that parents actively show their care for their kids to the best of their ability, depending on their access to books and other sources of imaginative and factual perspectives on the world. I think this is possibly one of the aspects that, in the report Bert refers to here, is subsumed under “poverty”. After all, “poverty” usually includes cultural poverty, which must here be understood in terms of the dominant culture. Hence, even if some kids are not “poor” as far as their indigenous culture is concerned, that may not help them much in a school system calibrated along the lines of dominant, globalizing, predominantly English-orientated culture.

  5. Mao Brac Mao Brac 24 August 2013

    Bert, I agree with everything you wrote. The South African doctorate is a joke. How many SA PhDs graduate and can’t write a single publication?

  6. David David 24 August 2013


    I agree with you.

    I went to grad school in Canada, where MA is 2 years (1st year coursework, 2nd year dissertation followed by defense). PhD is 2 years coursework, 3rd year comprehensive and candidacy exams which must result in publishable papers, 4th year dissertation and defense. For PhD there is a language requirement, particularly if your research is in a non-English speaking country. Sometimes I say all this to my SA students to put their education in context. But they already believe it’s oppression to have such requirements.

    Just the other other day I asked 3rd year students to write a literature review, reviewing at least 10 sources. They recoiled. Ten sources was too much. To put things in context, I pointed out that, in fact, at their level, the normal requirement was at least 20 sources. They were shocked. Then I asked them, “Friends, am I not merciful?” I was surprised to find out most of them didn’t actually know what literature review was.

    The other day an MA student asked, “How can I use theory?” She genuinely didn’t know and looked frustrated. There is no coursework for MA, so she’s on her own. Unfortunately, she went on to say she didn’t read theory, how much she hated theory, how sick she became when she read theory.

    I cannot mention key ideas such as “protestant ethic”, “mechanical and organic solidarity”, “habitus”,”imagined communities”, “alienation”, and assume my 4th year students understand them. I have…

  7. Albert Brenner Albert Brenner 25 August 2013

    Great post, as always Prof… but why, perhaps, not just accept that “Life is brutal, brutal, brutal! (Bertrand Russel)?

    I.e. why pussyfoot around with the Truth? Why be so desperately PC? Why so Apollinian in your reasoning, yet so Dionysian in your heart? Or do you seriously believe, like Heidegger, that a `God` will save us?

    I mean, who on Earth ever said that the Truth must be beautiful (except for Plato, of course)? None of the Eastern religions/Weltanschauungen ever believed in the aforementioned… just ask Schoppenhauer.

    Maybe, just maybe, our cosmology is not geo-centric.. but helio-centric, instead.

    And maybe, just maybe, Dr James Watson (a Nobel Prize winner) has a valid point… when he stated, “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”

    You, of all people, should know that conflating the Truth with the `ought to` has always led to doksa!

    You., like I, desperately want to live in Utopia. But maybe, just, maybe, that Cloud Cuckoo Land Lullaby of `Heaven` (Freud) is simply not attainable!

  8. bernpm bernpm 25 August 2013

    Does the minister of higher education know about these things??

    Is there a policy in place to dismiss students who do not perform to set standards of performance (within a set timescale) and knowledge (as measured in exams).

    After all… higher education is very expensive and not compulsory and is not listed in the row of human rights.

  9. Maria Maria 25 August 2013

    Albert, just perhaps you’ve misunderstood Bert. I was at Yale when he was there – in fact, we met there – and what he related here about Yale (and this goes for many other institutions in the US) boils down to saying that the PhD graduate course is BRUTAL. It is really a survival of the fittest (some don’t make it), and that seems to be something that is missing in SA at graduate (what you call postgraduate) level. Instead of being intellectually rigorous, even at undergrad level, and continuing with this for the master’s and the doctoral studies, from what I can gather, no firm undergraduate foundation is laid to cultivate the ability to survive in what should be recognized as a brutal state of affairs. And it further appears that school education in SA is nowhere near what it should be in equiping students with the knowledge they sorely need to succeed at university. So, in a Nietzschean idiom, life is unremittingly cruel, and students everywhere should be reminded of this, and taught how to deal with it. This does not mean, of course, that SA students are less intelligent than students elsewhere; intelligence is evenly spread among members of the human race. But it does mean that SA students are not challenged to develop their intelligence. When I was teaching in SA, I encountered a lot of resistance to advanced theory among academic staff at universities there, who derogated it as “Western” – if this is the case, can one expect students to be taught well?

  10. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 25 August 2013

    Comparing USA and RSA is impossible. We are two different continents with two very different people inhabiting them.

    Primarily, our basic education doesn’t allow for tertiary education. When you have to explain to a third year student that Wikipedia and SMS language are not acceptable, you know you have a basic problem.

    Then we have learning environments that are against learning. The student unions and their violence, the under funding, the quotas and the pressure on lecturers around publications and internal politics. Those factors also play their part.

    You also have kids getting freedom. No mom to make you go to class and no dad to kick your behind if you don’t pass. You get kids who know everything (because that is what they are at that age) and can be told nothing. Don’t underestimate the ramifications of the ‘traditional’ upbringing we are so fond of. The more strict the household, the wilder the kid goes.

    Finally, we have courses which don’t teach anything worthwhile. E.G. What on earth are we teaching Rodgers for? Our social workers don’t work with middle aged, white, American house wives!

  11. Nicole Nicole 25 August 2013

    I think the problem comes down to reading and begins in school. Most students I know don’t feel reading is an essential part of a degree and that, if possible, should be avoided at all costs. Why read the book when you can watch the movie? This strategy (strategy??!!) stops working at tertiary level and at this point students find themselves floundering because they’ve missed out on much of the journey that starts with fiction and ends with highly structured arguments at tertiary level.

    Marx? Freud? Piaget? Are you kidding me? Where’s the summary? Won’t the Wikipedia page do?

  12. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 26 August 2013

    Oh the old first language instruction bugbear. Black students would mostly fail if instruction were in their first language at an academic level. This is due to a combination of the completely foreign nature of languages at an academic level and the fact that most people do not speak their own language at a level that is remotely standard. Our country has a rich diversity of regional dialects. The first language red herring is a political ploy to keep Afrikaans in schools and to remove personal responsibility for academic incompetence.

    Students who drop out due to subjects being boring have a case of the sour grapes. If students were serious about their studies, they would switch courses – not drop out.

    Of course students are facing a world riddled with problems. This is not a reason to give up studies but even more reason to acquire the skills to solve these problems. It’s telling that the problems you mention are ecological, social, political and economic, as these are exactly the fields were we have virtually no certain knowledge whatsoever. In other words, these are the fields that need the most researchers.

    I loathe the mentality of ‘the world is fucked up so I’m going to use that as an excuse to be fucked up too’. You don’t study for the world, you study to make yourself less fucked up first and foremost. And you’re not going to manage to solve the world’s problems by studying critical analysis – that’s a certain route to becoming a surf bum.

  13. Maria Maria 26 August 2013

    @ Garg: With the exception of your last paragraph, it seems as if you and Bert agree on something here. Miracles still happen.

  14. john b patson john b patson 26 August 2013

    Eye opening comparisons but one is left with the nagging elephant in the room: What is a Phd for?
    In the US and increasingly Europe, it is now a requirement to become an university lecturer — and increasingly an university junior lecturer.
    The problem is that there are always around a third more Phd graduates than university lecturer jobs (The Economist a couple of years ago wrote about this at
    It raised the suspicion that having lots of Phd students was a way for universities to get lots of highly motivated and qualified researchers for free.
    Added to this is the problem that some academics, Dr Oliver honourably excluded, go so far down the rabbit hole of theory that they never come up, and are incapable of writing or publishing anything that is comprehensible to anyone without at least their level of theory and jargon. This negates the principle that Phd research be original and advances human knowledge — human knowledge is not advanced if no-one, or nearly no-one understands the research and its only publication is the compulsory bound files in some storage centre no-one ever enters.
    Still, most Phd students enjoy the experience, especially those with bursaries or rich and understanding parents, and come out 10 years later with salaries slightly higher than those with masters degrees.

  15. Joseph Coates Joseph Coates 26 August 2013

    What I can I say……agree on a lot but would like to see that our education system is upgraded for those who can cope and are emtionally mature enough intellectually with their current grade and if they are not, to be placed into a special stream, so others aren’t hindered by their lack of progress.
    We need to emphasis on those who could be trained up in various trades if thet aren’t academic material. There is a great shortage of qualified trademen lacking in our counrty. Those who have the acsdemis skills , we, desperately need in the engerineering field as well as, in science and mathematical areas. Also they should make entrepeneurship a subject at grade 12 level, for those wanting to go into business after doing a course in their specific business, so to create eventually, job opportunities for those who qualified or just left grade 12 level. This would in time, alleviate our economical growth which needs an emancipational kick start like never before. Lastly, classes should be smaller for teachers to cope and have different streams like : A B C D E meaning students with similiar IQ are placed together.
    This could bring about a positive chnge and maybe student/ teacher relationship would improve.

  16. Call for Honesty Call for Honesty 26 August 2013

    #Paul Whelan

    also poster earlier

    Some years ago a study was done in Swaziland. While the fathers were mostly away working on SA mines, the mothers had to look after the children. How was it possible for many of these children to perform far better than expected? The researchers discovered a repeated pattern: illiterate mothers who took an interest in what their children were learning at school, got them to share their experiences and to read to them – this requires no skill only a caring mother.

    Fixing the problem in education must begin with parents becoming responsible from the earliest years. Responsible parents are also far more likely to put pressure on the schools and teachers to do their work. If done this will snowball to the benefit of their children and the community.

  17. Bob Bob 26 August 2013

    I strongly agree with Bert on academic rigour (although I would rather smoke pot on a beach in PE than read Lacan, but that’s why I chose to study something else). Students need theoretical foundations in their undergrad degrees, not some soft, pseudo-enhancement of their employability. This applies to school as well: the things pupils should learn there haven’t changed much in centuries, so why do we need new methods (e.g. OBE)?

    In any case, I recommend anyone interested in Master’s or Doctor’s degrees to study elsewhere (e.g. in the US or Europe) if they can. Standards are generally higher. There are plenty of scholarships and other opportunities for those who look.

  18. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 26 August 2013

    Sorry to disappoint you. Don’t worry, we probably disagree on what needs to be done about the problem.I for one can’t think how anyone can be familiar with rigour unless they’ve applied logic somewhat, say by taking maths up to matric level, at the very least.

    Also the post-grad courses in America differ greatly with regards to standards. Some of the best universities in the world like Yale would have greater requirements than others, which are not accredited outside of their own states or even their own counties. Course work is also lightweight.

    Those who can afford the luxury of becoming Trustafarian beach bums typically go to a tertiary institute to get out of the hair of their parents or to gain radical chic credentials. The vast majority of South Africans would kill for opportunities like that.

    I’m afraid this points to one direction for South Africa: A Matthew effect whereby those who can afford it would make an alternative arrangement but those who can’t will be subjected to sub-standard education all the way up to doctoral level. This is a great injustice and can only serve to entrench the divide between the rich and the poor.

  19. Albert Brenner Albert Brenner 26 August 2013

    @Maria. Maybe you are right. The thing is just that Prof Olivier is, by far, the best philosopher in South Africa. Everybody in-the-know knows that. Yet those attention-seeking knuckleheads at Stellenbosch and Rhodes dominate all public discourses re. philosophy (especially, ethics).

    If there is one thinker in this country that can act as a `moral compass` in this brutal country of ours, it is Prof Olivier. But the way I see it, he has `given up`… become exceedingly PC and simply escaped into Art (ala Schoppenhauer). Alas, gone are those glorious days when he could, for example, deconstruct a premise by the brilliant JB Thompson in just 2 sentences.

    Maybe, just maybe, Prof Olivier will rediscover his `mojo` if, for example, he takes a que from young philosophers like Dr Louise Mabille of UP. Her wonderful article `Die vreemde verraad deur feministe teenoor die Weste` is a sterling example that Western civilization in Mandelatopia is not going to go `quietly into the night`.

  20. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 26 August 2013

    @Call for Honesty – Thank you. What you say about the Swazi study does not surprise – anyone who’s watched a mother with her baby knows how decisive her influence is (especially if it’s missing).

    I repeat my second point, with others here. If education is defective at primary (above all) and secondary level, it is not likely to be made up for by any means introduced at higher or tertiary level – anymore than a building without foundations can be expected to stand up.

    The state will play its part for better or worse. Education and the path it takes depends in the end on what you think human beings are for.

  21. Maria Maria 26 August 2013

    @ Albert: Bert PC? What a laugh! You’re not reading the Bert I know. Is it PC to criticize the major “institution” in which power is vested today, namely neoliberal capitalism and all its agencies? And, ipso facto, the buy-in by the ANC into this nefarious system? I don’t think so. Look at his posts on The Spear, on e-tolling, on matters ecological (several), etc., etc. And just by the way, he would certainly not approve of anyone “rating” him as philosopher. Nor do I. Every philosopher, artist, poet, theoretician, scientist who takes her/his discipline or art seriously and contributes to exploring its frontiers has something valuable to say. One cannot call a philosopher, or an artist, the “best,” because every true thinker is unique, and therefore imponderable. There is no measure to say such a thing, and I know that Bert would agree.

  22. Albert Brenner Albert Brenner 26 August 2013

    @Garg Unzola

    You wrote; “The first language red herring is a political ploy to keep Afrikaans in schools…“`. Pray do tell exactly what is wrong with keeping Afrikaans in school – especially in areas where Afrikaners and Coloureds are in the majority? What exactly is wrong with educating children in their first language? It is actually a human right, you know!

    The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity affirms that, “culture
    should be regarded as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, values systems, traditions and beliefs.” Furthermore, it suggests that culture is at the heart of contemporary debates about identity, social cohesion, and the development of a
    knowledge-based economy. The above understandings also affirm respect for the
    diversity of cultures, tolerance, dialogue and cooperation, in a climate of mutual trust and understanding. These are among the best guarantees of international peace and security. They indicate that we should aspire towards greater solidarity on the basis of recognition of cultural diversity, awareness of the unity of humankind and of the development of intercultural exchanges“.

    Afrikaans, for example, is only 1 of 3 languages in the past 160 years to have gained `all-sphere` status. So why force them to use (your) Queen`s bastardized Germanic…

  23. Bob Bob 27 August 2013

    @ John Patson, who wrote “What is a PhD for?”
    This is what comes to my mind:

    – Education to expert level. This is, above all, a fantastic thing in itself. But it’s also crucial for some careers, for example in R&D at technology companies, or economists at reserve banks.

    – Generating new ideas and research. PhD students produce much of the research output of typical research institutions.

    – Fun. I highly recommend it. But try to do it in a different country, at a good university.

    And to all those who say that school education should be improved before we even consider universities, I say there is no reason not to improve the quality at every level, independently, as soon as possible.

  24. Tofolux Tofolux 27 August 2013

    @Bert, the irony though is the fact the no-one can agree on the diagnosis and the remedy. This is so evident not only in academia but also in civil groups. Hence what does this say about education per se. You are correct, no-one can come up with the answer and the way forward. The SA student can however complain about the material conditions and correctly so. You cannot wipe out years of structural inferiority and compete on the same playing field as those who never experienced this. It is far too early to make the call that we have ”freed” ourselves eg see the mentality of some above. The one fact I think we should however agree is that education throughout the world has never experienced the turmoil it does today. In America, the poor complain about their standard of education and this is borne out by the onset of Calculas and of course the situation in Britain, France, Spain is well documented. We see the disparity and challanges in Brazil, India and China etc this only as eg of good economies vs service delivery. So what is the answer? I cannot pretend that I have any answer but can I ask a question, has there been any interrogation on the impact of how the revolution of the information highway, technology, the turnover of information, industrialisation has on education. Or better out did any of these put a strain on education and what we teach?

  25. Dave Harris Dave Harris 27 August 2013

    Crisis because our education system is not like the Ivys in the US?! You DO understand that education has evolved into a BIG business in the US as it is becoming in SA, don’t you?

    Even though you seek to hype the concept of a doctoral degree, another Eurocentric creation, you fail to understand that other cultures had far superior systems to create truly great thinkers. Having a Phd does not equate to being wise and/or creative. The Phd program is a one dimensional form of education built for an industrial age whose time is almost past. Most of the “research” that you so value, are simply designed to serve the needs of large established corporations.

    Our current age of information has proven that the importance of Phd’s is highly overrated. In fact, as Ken Robinson’s most popular TED talk on how schools kill creativity ( put it, these are individuals who view the primary purpose of their bodies is to transport their swollen heads around. LOL

    Technology innovators like Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Jeff Bezos(Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) are either dropouts or have basic degrees, since most intelligent critical thinkers see through the bull of the education establishment! See the contradiction? With the skyrocketing cost of education and unemployment among the younger generation all across the world, its no surprise that they do not buy the snake oil that you’re…

  26. Dave Harris Dave Harris 27 August 2013

    @Albert Brenner
    Your comment certainly ranks as one of the most racist I’ve seen on Thoughtleader.

    btw. It may be worth mentioning that Watson and Crick basically “stole” the original research performed by Rosalind Franklin ( These old boys, never gave this FEMALE genius, who gave her life for science, any credit.

  27. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 27 August 2013

    @Albert Brenner:
    There’s nothing wrong with wanting first language education. There’s everything with suggesting that this is a priority, or that this would improve the state of our education. Culture is at the heart of our AIDS epidemic and the establishment’s anti-intellectualism (“I don’t need matric, look at our role models, they’re doing fine without schooling” or “I demand mother tongue education, this is discrimination!” – seen ANN7 lately?).

    By the way, my mother tongue is Afrikaans. It’s a useless language as far as international trade goes and the FF ‘research’ does not show how most of the top ranked nations in the world switch on the ‘voertaal’ half way through. It doesn’t matter. You can opt to be taught in English and make your skills internationally relevant, or you can opt to be taught in Afrikaans and learn Anglicisms by rote learning for the most part and then get stuck in Orania for the rest of your life.

    The priority of education is not ‘nasiebou’ or finding one’s cultural identity. As noted, it’s to make yourself less fucked up (ie more useful). It’s about the skill set, of which an additional language forms a part.

    Tertiary institutes are not neoliberal nor capitalist by any stretch, unless of course by neoliberal you mean private-public partnerships/parastatals. There’s no ‘creative destruction’ for crappy tertiary institutes.

  28. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 27 August 2013

    The chief reason higher education is desirable is to stop everyone believing what they read on the internet.

  29. Bob Bob 27 August 2013

    @Dave Harris: There are plenty of examples of (corporate) tech innovators with PhDs: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Gordon Moore. That, however, is not the point. The real enabling breakthroughs, quantum mechanics, relativity etc on which technology is built, primarily came from scientists with PhDs. (Ironically you mention Rosalind Franklin, who, naturally, obtained a PhD.)

    And even though the large majority of people with doctorates will not have a huge impact on the world, the opportunity to educate yourself to expert level without the distorting pressures of a profit motive can be hugely enriching to the individual and society, for the reasons I mentioned in my previous post.

  30. Albert Brenner Albert Brenner 27 August 2013

    @David Harris

    Since when does quoting a Nobel Prize winning scientist count as `racism`? Seriously David, we are not living in the Dark Ages anymore. You inquisition types really love sniffing out `heresy`. Do try to honour the Spirit of the Enlightenment, please. This website is called Thoughtleader, not Thoughtcontroller. Or am I mistaken?

  31. Albert Brenner Albert Brenner 27 August 2013

    @Maria. Well, since you are Prof Olivier`s self-appointed spokesperson, who am I to argue.

  32. proactive proactive 27 August 2013

    ….hilarious to follow the duel of the intelligentsia about higher education! Many good points though- does wisdom of PhD’s or Masters entail leadership, getting our society united, educated & out of the dumps- to replace mediocre rulers?

    Why are communist cadres in charge overall- & of higher education? Intelligentsia is debating, resigned, youth is flirting with drugs, hallucinating, dreaming of nationalizing & beach bumming- while schemers & simple people with different skills become decision makers to rule over all others? Democracy a Gordian knot?

    What does the country need? A bigger economy, more opportunities & work, more hands on, less failed ideology, involving as many as possible, not racially selected, more skills, grateful, honest simple folks willing to work together in building a country & nation…….and much less of the other kind- to achieve a healthy balance- sooner!

    To promote & create low standard universities, producing ‘matriculated’ graduates with inflated expectations, flooding the market, a risk to employ, becoming disillusioned & swelling the ranks of future revolutionaries and pot smoking beach bums- radicalized enough one day, to blow up what others created- is probably the wrong choice!

    Maybe a person who can grow & manage his own simple business, fix a broken toy for his children, the plumbing in his house, repair his car, build his own home or do his own tax return- might be more valuable than an attempt to (never) graduate?

  33. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 28 August 2013

    This article by Rhoda Kadalie seems to start by saying what some are saying here – that is, problems at university cannot all be blamed on instruction lower down. But she then goes on to a huge list of fundamental problems with instruction ‘lower down’:

    Are we perhaps confusing university with other institutions of higher education? A university is (supposed to be) preeminently a place of research, of new additions to knowledge. As such, teaching there (to ‘undergraduates’) is incidental to that purpose and undergraduates are expected at a minimum to be self-starters, not to require spoon-feeding in the process of learning.

    Ms Kadalie lists a whole range of problems that plainly precede and can only be the reason for bigger problems later on.

  34. bernpm bernpm 28 August 2013

    Problems in education????

    today’s news:

    “Students at Walter Sisulu University, in the Eastern Cape, have been told to vacate the university because of labour trouble.”

    Problems solved!!

  35. Bert Bert 28 August 2013

    For lack of space I could not elaborate earlier on what I meant by saying that the doctoral programmes at places like Yale are “better” than what we have here. It’s not that ALL doctorates completed here are inferior – of course not; it depends on the intellectual quality of the students concerned as well as on the guidance they get from their promoters. What is lacking here, though, is the sustaining context of critical exchange, on a weekly basis, during master’s/doctoral seminars, where the professor teaching the course would do an introduction for about an hour, before opening the matter for discussion, which usually lasts another 2 hours, at least. Some universities in SA may well do something similar; I don’t know. But a lot of the time one works on your own, with perhaps the odd discussion and/or feedback from a supervisor or promoter on the work you’ve done, but lacking the weekly stimulus and motivating function of critical discussion with other people in the discipline. When I was writing my doctoral thesis in SA, while working full-time, I used to spend entire weekends in my university office, for 3 years, without the intellectual peer-environment that doctoral students at Yale and other good universities enjoy. This is what we need to create here.

  36. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 29 August 2013

    @Bert – Regarding your last point – I am well out of touch with universities today, but when I was an undergraduate, there was the same concern about regular/frequent enough contact with tutors and insufficient numbers of seminars, so it is no surprise to hear it is probably far worse today when intakes are thousands of times greater. All the more reason for secondary education in particular to find ways to cultivate the ability and discipline of studying alone, second best though that may often be.

  37. Bert Bert 29 August 2013

    Paul – You’re right about the added pressure of increased numbers at university, but this applies mainly to undergraduate studies. At postgraduate level it can certainly be arranged in the format discussed above. The problem in SA is, in my experience, that because most lecturers have not gone through this process of critical openness to texts and themes studied in a seminar-context, they don’t really take the initiative to create it on a regular basis for their students, either.

  38. Chris Stevens Chris Stevens 2 September 2013

    @Paul, Melvin and Call for Honesty
    (Regarding original comments)

    Although I entirely agree with your original comments stating that a good basis for an inquisitive mind begins at home, there is a much larger context in play, namely the sociological perceptions surrounding the education system in South Aftica. Tender corruptions surrounding the Limpopo textbook scandal aside, strong political undertones both directly affect and subversively undermine the ideals of an objective, critical and comprehensive education in our current system. I am often reminded about the ANCYL pulling school children as young as 10 from classes in schools surrounding the Joburg area and bussing them to Luthuli House to protest at the ANC disciplinary hearings of several ANCYL fat cats. What is the relevance you may ask, well let us consider the impact which this event has on the children, namely promoting a mindset that places civil disobedience above the need for education. It’s harbors a dangerous pseudo-zeitgeist which says that ‘you don’t need to be educated to make a difference, all you must do is protest’ or to put it differently, ‘just be disobedient, don’t question why you are being disobedient.’

    Case and point: the closure of the Walter Sisulu University.

    Whilst I am all for ‘governments fearing their people, not the other way around’, we can not just simply do away with the critical components which underpin the phenomena of change / progress.

  39. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 3 September 2013

    @Chris Stevens – Absolutely agree. This was the thought behind my earlier comment, how long does it take to eliminate an idea like liberation before education?

  40. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 3 September 2013

    @Bert – Isn’t much of the time of professors and postgrad research workers taken up by the need to tutor undergrads is what I meant – suggesting, perhaps, some number of undergrads should not be at university at all, or different kinds of tertiary education would be more suitable for them?

  41. Bert Bert 4 September 2013

    Certainly, Paul. We should copy the American system of universities existing alongside community colleges, where the latter offer many of the disciplines that universities also offer, but in addition to this, students can do courses there in more ‘practical’ directions, such as hairstyling. Many of the students at university would probably find it a better route to earning an income.

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