As we watch events unfolding at our universities, on the fringes of the FeesMustFall movement, we see a near total lack of understanding of what universities are all about and how they work. A lot is written in the press, and talked about on TV and radio, about the danger to this year’s academic programme. The main focus is on the undergraduate programme, and the teaching that happens in university classrooms throughout the country. Very little is mentioned in the press about the actual university, and what is really at stake.
Very few, if any, universities earn their reputation because of what happens in the classroom.
It seems that people fail to understand that Universities are not machines, that their World-class status is earned by highly productive academics who have global reputations and who can go and work anywhere in the world. Some undoubtedly already have, and many probably are in the process of doing so. This is not a function of sub-cutaneous melanin concentration, simply of the global marketability of academics.
Ordinarily, South Africa is an awesome place to work. We have excellent universities, and excellent opportunities to make a difference. But the disruptions we are experiencing now are undoubtedly causing some academics to want to sustain a globally recognised research and teaching output, and to seek alternatives elsewhere.
If they leave, as some will, their loss will represent the hollowing out of our institutions. Quality is a virtuous circle. Top quality academics attract top quality students, and top quality students attract top quality academics, who attract top quality students. And so on. The upward spiral takes about 30-50 years.
If we hollow out our best institutions, recovery will not be easy, nor will it be quick, nor will it be cheap. It may well cost more than is gained, and take longer than the lives of those who benefit from so-called free education.
This is a terrible dilemma, and one where, of course, the ANC is showing a leadership vacuum of magnificent proportions. I fear for what we are losing.