National Higher Education Conference : Reinventing South Africa's Universities of the Future

Hunting down the elephant in the room: transformation and institutional culture

"The best way to stop a conversation about institutional culture is to attempt to get a shared definition of it." -- Prof André Keet

The transformation barometer

Mr George Mvalo is the Director: Social Justice and Transformation at the Vaal University of Technology. He also chairs Universities South Africa's Transformation Managers Forum (TMF), one of numerous communities of practice operating under the USAf banner to promote inter-institutional information-sharing, collaboration on issues of common interest and engagement. His presentation at the conference sought to flag the work and achievements of that forum whose first mission was to explore transformation in the sector, without necessarily concerning itself - immediately - with a definition.

Mr George Mvalo
Mr George Mvalo, Director: Social Justice and Transformation at the Vaal University of Technology and Chair of USAf's Transformation Managers' Forum (TMF).

The forum set out to draft a framework and by 2016 had developed a transformation barometer that looked at a range of areas. The first was institutional culture, including social inclusion and cohesion. What became apparent is how many of those within the university found this space suffocating. The next area was that of teaching and learning and research and innovation. Teaching and learning required that the forum examined the curricula and the extent to which it replicated neo-colonial thought systems. More than this, it also required that universities consider the ways in which they measured student knowledge through their assessments.

Regarding research, Mvalo says the forum made strides in understanding exactly who was conducting research and what kind of research that was. It also became apparent that within institutions there were individuals who enabled or hindered transformation. So, while some institutions made great strides transforming across race and gender in the staff and student complement, some institutions, 25 years later, manifestly lacked the political will to become an inclusive space, he told delegates.

Mvalo says that at the heart of developing a transformed sector was the question of gender. If one considers the representation of women in the upper echelons of management and leadership of institutions, it becomes clear that equity is still lacking. He also argues that as our universities are meant to provide an example to the wider society, gender parity is imperative.

In the area of disability, Mvalo contends that the sector has also only made small strides in welcoming people with disabilities who are still largely invisible on campuses. Although the TMF continues monitoring usage of the transformation barometer and also refining the instrument, he concludes by noting that there is a dominant sense of comfort with the status quo across the sector, and that this sense of comfort needs to be constantly challenged if we are to realise the transformation objectives laid out in the Education White Paper 3 - A Programme for Higher Education Transformation.

Members of the panel that led discussions in this session...
Members of the panel that led discussions in this session were,from left : Prof Pearl Sithole from the University of the Free State's Development Studies. She chaired this session; Prof André Keet, Chair of Critical studies in Higher Education Transformation, Nelson Mandela university; Mr George Mvalo, Director: Social Justice and Transformation, Vaal University of Technology, Prof Pamela Dube, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Development and Support, University of the Western Cape and Ms Khuselwa Kafu, Student: Honours Development Studies, University of the Western Cape.

The student voice

Hailing from the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Professor Pamela Dube, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Development and Support tackled the topic from a student perspective. Prof Dube provided the opening gambit by detailing the national legislative framework and plans that govern all institutions and set the framework and context for transformation. Starting with the National Commission on Higher Education report (1996) through to the National Higher Education Plan (2001) implemented through Council, Senate, institutional forums, student governance structures and oversight committees, she said that her institution guarantees that transformation/inclusivity is addressed at every turn.

Ms Khuselwa Kafu
Ms Khuselwa Kafu, Honours student in Development Studies at UWC.

It turns out, however, that this top-down structure provides a very different experience of institutional culture for students within the UWC, as the conference would learn from Ms Khuselwa Kafu, an Honours student in Development Studies, who is currently working on gender issues with women farm workers and has substantial experience as an activist within the UWC's Student Representative Council.

She began by pointing out that numerically, students are the main stakeholder within the sector and yet are hardly represented at the conference or sufficiently consulted on campus. In fact, her entire presentation highlighted the discrepancy between benevolent policy measures and a vastly different lived reality for students. UWC is historically a university of the left and prides itself on attracting a "significant number of black students many of whom are first-generation and come from humble beginnings". Even though it has a relatively low fee structure, students are confronted, on a daily basis, with food insecurity, exposure to violent crime, mental health issues, inability to purchase study materials, pay tuition and/or boarding fees.


The top-down approach is undermining institutional culture

Kafu stated that as rapidly as society is changing, top-down university governance remains essentially as it was decades ago. This creates visible divisions between students and management but also between the leadership, the academics and the support staff. "There is a need," says Kafu, "for institutional engagement, beyond the Council, Senate and statutory structures in the form of town hall-type conversations between the university leadership, students and staff". She added that by involving students in the planning of communication campaigns aimed at students, UWC could realise far bigger successes than it ever did before, as students know better what language, platforms and approaches work best for their peers.

She also called for a different kind of transformation in areas like academic support and in the development of co-curricular experience programmes that prepare graduates for the world of work. She then went on to make the point that recurred throughout the conference - that with the onset of 4IR, institutions must introspect on the readiness of staff (both academic and support) for its impact, and on the extent to which universities have the resources to access and innovate off this technology. On the current scourge of genderbased violence (GBV) which, she said, had turned many campuses from places of security into spaces of fear, Kafu posited that only by coming together as a collective community, will the institution begin to fashion a new institutional culture and truly eradicate GBV, improve mental health and render effective student support.

The hidden economies

Professor André Keet, Chair of Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation at Nelson Mandela University, approached institutional culture via an analysis of discursive practices. His understanding of the university acknowledges the existence of different parties with different interests and more particularly, the unequal power relations that manifest within these party interests. These he describes as a series of economies that are "micro arrangements within a university space". Moreover, these economies are understood as remote by the agents actively participating in them and have become an acceptable and immovable way of doings things.

Prof Keet argues that across institutions there "are patterns of recognitions and patterns of misrecognitions, or inclusions and exclusions that exist within the university". While he says this is not a totalising frame of reference for critique, it does allow for an interrogation of the common-sense assumptions that exist across universities. For example, it allows for the propagation of ideas like the dysfunction of the historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs) and the quality and excellence of historically advantaged institutions (HAIs). The dysfunction of the HDI is never couched in racist terms but in terms of maladministration. It also allows for transformation to be deferred within a series of contested ideas like equity or excellence, or transformation and quality; many of which have, ironically, been transcribed into departmental policy.

Another micro economy, that of management, allows some individuals to 'play the system' using a code that allows them to get things done while disallowing others to do the same.

Prof André Keet
Professor André Keet, Chair of Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation at Nelson Mandela University.

That is further reflected in the administrative economy, the sets of power that are wielded at the administrative level around what is allowed or not, but is never tested against fairness but only against the policy itself. This discursive critique allows Prof Keet to target a range of occluded, granular economies like "white excellence", "black suffering", "the white subject as endangered by the other", "the intellectual economy and its offspring, the publication cabals" and even the need to interrogate the "conference and travel economy".

While never claiming for a comprehensive theory of economies, Prof Keet drew murmurs of recognition and shows of support from the audience which succinctly suggested the validity of his conceptualisation of institutional culture.

Where is the evidence - Prof Habib argued

Prof Adam Habib
Prof Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Prof Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, immediately challenged the panel by listing a two-part problem with the way that the conversation was evolving. "I would like to see some evidence", argued Habib, "because when we construct the debate at the conceptual level we can't grapple with the reality of what's working and what's not. Are you really saying that we have not transformed over the past 20 years?" He then proceeded to give the headline numbers of Wits transformation achievements. "In 1994 Wits was 70% white, it's now 82% black; Wits had 24% women staff, now it's 51%. Transformation is a process, it's going to take 30 to 40 years."


Moving on to Kafu's input he agreed with her issues but then asked what could be done.

"What's working at Venda, can that be exported to UWC? We need to move the debate from what are the challenges to what we should be doing." In Keet's rebuttal he made it clear that no one had spoken of a failed transformation project but rather that he was interested in those areas that are difficult to grasp. He said his solution was very practical by calling for research into each of those micro economies that pervade the system.

Is our intransigence structural or human - Ms Nzimande asked?

Ms Fundisile Nzimande, Member of the Transformation Oversight Committee operating under the Ministry of Higher Education and Training and Science and Innovation, accepted that transformation was a process but asked the big question. "It really worries me", she began "why does transformation take so long? Why, at one institution does it take 20 years to create a professor while at others it takes five to eight years. Is our intransigence structural or human?" Prof Dube's response to Nzimande reiterated that the intention of all inputs was not to indulge in rhetoric but to point to the practical cracks that still had not been addressed, like giving women academics time for research and ensuring that all academics are allowed equal time.

We need to confront our demons if we are to learn from the past before moving forward - Prof Mtose

From Port Elizabeth, Prof Sibongile Muthwa, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Nelson Mandela University, returned to Keet's conceptualisation of the HDIs, how this metatag of dysfunction had become associated with them and what could be done to interrogate this further. She was also interested in the lack of institutional solidarity and how it is that some academics feel no part of the institution.

Prof Xoliswa Mtose, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Zululand, was adamant that there was no point about speaking of the future which "is about hope and empty promises" without confronting the difficult questions as raised, of racism and class that pervade our universities. "Until these uncomfortable things have been named, we cannot move forward", she gave by way of summary.

Professor Xoliswa Mtose
Prof Xoliswa Mtose, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Zululand.

In agreement, Prof Keet pointed out that "dysfunction had re-racialised the HDIs" to become an entrenched fact.

Ms Clair Kelly, the Head of the Transformation office at Stellenbosch, strongly supported Prof Keet's economies and identified how, in her work, it is exactly at those junctures where the old power relations are consolidated and where the institutional culture gets stuck. She went further to argue that the research tools do exist to examine and expose these economies and how they play out on a daily basis. However, there are no financial resources allocated to that kind of deep, analytical transformational work.

In the end, it was Prof Keet's notion of micro economies that most engaged (or enraged) the participants. After 25 years of gathering institutional data and replicating the quantitative transformation indicators, there was a pervasive sense that it would take an additional investigative mechanism like Keet's to uncover the university/office politics at play. How to fund that project is now the question.

Beyond the theme: production of institutional culture, the conference went on to interrogate transformation from numerous other perspectives. As we continue to inform the sector on what transpired at this event, Universities SA will continue to share summated accounts of other sessions until the conference outcomes are exhausted.


Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.


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