John Higgins’ book, ACADEMIC FREEDOM IN A DEMOCRATIC SOUTH AFRICA, analyses threats our universities face and proposes ways of resisting them

 Enlightened leadership needed to secure academic freedom

10 Oct 2014 00:00| Michael Chapman

A new book analyses threats our universities face and proposes ways of resisting them.


John Higgins poses two interrelated questions in his book. What is or could be or should be academic freedom, both in South Africa and, by implication, globally; and what is or could be or should be the role of the humanities?

Academic freedom in South Africa is defined constitutionally not as an institutional practice, but as an individual right. You may pursue knowledge for its own sake; you may engage, even contentiously, in the debates of the academic discipline. As in Britain and the United States, your department may set its own teaching syllabus. (In European countries the task falls to the relevant central ministry.)

But – says Higgins in a paragraph that is crucial to the argument of his book – such individual freedom can distract attention from “the real dimensions in which academic freedom operates: the complex and politically charged exchanges within institutions between academics and the new managerial class of administrators; the struggle between universities and the state in relation to the control of teaching and research priorities; and the all-encompassing ideological battle between liberal and neoliberal ideas of the very purpose of higher education, which most commentators prefer to pretend is not happening”.

In short, universities have come to embody an organisational or managerial culture. The “new managerial class” consists of retreaded academics, whose tasks are no longer to teach or research, but to monitor the teaching and research of their former colleagues. No longer elected by their departments, faculties or schools, the new managers owe their primary allegiance (as well as their big salary hikes) to the vice-chancellor’s authority over his or her “senior executive team”.

“Them versus us” scenarios are fairly common; and, in what is purported to be a market paradigm, the professional disciplines flourish while the humanities are marginalised (that is, the nonvocational humanities, such as literature or philosophy, as distinct from, say, psychology, law or economics).

This is a bald summary; Higgins’s arguments are informed by a subtle context of ideas and history. I wish to grant his book the scope of its argument, and reflect on what he identifies as the value of “critical literacy” as a key humanities intervention in utilitarian times.

Let me start with two observations. The first is by Higgins’s erstwhile colleague at the University of Cape Town, the Nobel literature laureate JM Coetzee, whose letter to Higgins serves as the foreword to this book (“Universities head for extinction”, Mail & Guardian, November 1 2013). The second is by Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor, in her opening address to the conference On Being Controversial: The Humanities Reach Out, organised by the Academy of Science of South Africa this year.

Coetzee writes: “The fact is that the record of universities, over the past 30 years, in defending themselves against pressure from the state, has not been a proud one.

“Few academics appreciated, from the beginning, the scale of the attack that was being launched on their independence or the ideological passion that drove it. Resistance was weak and ill-organised; routed, the professors beat a retreat to their dugouts, from where they have done little besides launching the intermittent satirical barb against the managerial newspeak they are perforce having to acquire.”

Whereas the National Party, between 1948 and the late 1980s, had a conception of the state to which “such tenets of British liberal faith as academic freedom were simply alien” – Coetzee, again – “the indifference of the ANC to academic freedom has less of a philosophical basis, and may simply come out of a defensive reluctance to sanction sites of power over which it has no control”.

But is this not too sanguine? To turn to Pandor, we hear some disdain for the phrase “speaking truth to power”. She is somewhat impatient with critique, critique, critique: “What is the language that the humanities have to offer to policy-makers to contribute to the government’s vision of a prosperous, non-racial nation?”

Pandor’s invocation of vision is instructive. Instrumentalisation, bureaucratisation or utilitarianism in South Africa have long operated in tandem with grand, often delusional visions: Rhodes’s Cape to Cairo; Milner’s Anglicisation, apartheid or (to use Verwoerd-speak) separate development, now the overlapping hankering after a socialist utopia and capitalist productivity or, in shorthand, a national democratic revolution.

In the educational sphere, cost efficiency seeks to coexist with the ideal of massification; developed world imitation (as in outcomes-based education) founders on the reality of developing world underpreparedness.

If the law of the professors has been replaced by the law of the managers, then the law of both the professors and the managers is regarded in government circles as subservient to the law of ANC party-political power.

Higgins’s book consists of five essays, covering the period from the late 1980s to the present. These are followed by three interviews – with Terry Eagleton, Edward W Said, who lent the phrase “speaking truth to power” its currency, and anti-apartheid activist and former rector of the University of the Western Cape, the late Jakes Gerwel.

The argument locates its points of focus in references to several education Acts, regulations and policies, both locally and globally. Higgins refers to FW de Klerk’s apartheid-era regulations of 1987 concerning state funding to universities – regulations aimed at curtailing staff and/or student campus activism. (De Klerk was minister of education at the time.)

Here Higgins draws a disturbing parallel with the recently promulgated Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Act (2012), which gives the current minister of higher education and training, Dr Blade Nzimande, the “power to intervene and to issue directives on a range of matters and the power to appoint an administrator if an institution does not comply”, as Higgins quotes Ahmed Bawa saying of the Act.

Higgins then extends his argument outwards by referring to Margaret Thatcher’s Education Act of 1988, which, in terms of funding, shifted the legitimating idea of higher education from a focus on serving the public to one on servicing the economy.

As such, a business model became entrenched (Thatcher was hostile to academic critique), and the concept of academic freedom, as Higgins argues, separated the freedom to pursue the debates of the discipline from the freedom to critique the functioning of the institution, the latter leading possibly to a charge – as in business-organisational culture – of bringing the institution into disrepute.

But if this, in South Africa, seems foreign to the pre-Thatcher English-liberal way, it was not unusual for Afrikaans institutions to toe the government line. Neither is it unusual, today, in British, North American or European universities to have an ascendant managerial class. As a colleague at a German university remarked, criticise your manager-dean on Monday and on Friday you might be shown the back door.

So, do questions of academic freedom in South Africa amount to little more than our catching up with the rest of the world? After all, the post-apartheid government might contend that the major “human” battle has been won: racially unrestricted access to institutions of learning. Although the humanities might feel an economic pinch, has not the greater good prevailed: the servicing of the economy?

Higgins, however, argues persuasively against giving up on questions of either academic freedom or the value of the humanities. Referring to the British Academy’s major report in 2004 on the role of the humanities in society, he observes that it seeks to address itself beyond its own constituency: “The humanities and social sciences play a significant role in providing high-level skills and ground-breaking research essential to a knowledge-based economy.”

Despite this, the report does not seem to have dislodged the “received idea” that the Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths) are of greater importance to society than what Higgins groups together as the “Nail” pursuits and practices of narrative, analysis, interpretation and literacy.

It is Nail that Higgins regards as the distinctive contribution of the (nonvocational) humanities and social sciences to a humanistic education and, by application, to a more generally educated citizenry.

This is a society of citizens in which instrumental benefits (learning skills, economic growth) would be enhanced by the intrinsic benefits of cognitive growth, stronger social networks, community identity and – through imaginative exercise – greater capacity for empathy within the delineations of a culturally diverse South African body politic.

Higgins’s key point is that economies are inextricably bound to human beings. What is frustrating is that, in a post-apartheid South Africa predicated on human struggle, the various educational regulations, Acts and policies, while nodding at humanistic value, fail to follow through on any intrinsic intention.

One cannot refute the importance of developing the economy. How, then, do academics in the humanities articulate the utility value of their disciplines when the balance sheet might suggest the closure, say, of language departments or classics departments?

In responding to this dilemma Higgins draws on Raymond Williams’s notion of higher-order literacy, or what Higgins throughout his argument calls critical literacy. It is literacy, to quote Williams, that “calls the bluff of authority, since it is a condition of all its practical work that it questions sources, closely examines offered authenticities, reads contextually and comparatively, identifies conventions to determine meanings”.

Higgins finds support for a “nuanced citizen” in, among other sources, Manuel Castells’s 1991 report to the World Bank seminar on higher education and development. As Castells argued, “the economy (and particularly the informational economy) functions within social systems of communication and representation”.

We assume that, both locally and globally, universities will continue to be governed by the law of managers. We assume, too, that South Africa’s grand visions – usually politically inspired – will continue often to contradict everyday reality. The result is what Higgins calls “template fever”, in which a desire in a globalised world to be international can distract planners from pressing local realities.

Template fever manifested itself in the response of three members of the South African National Planning Commission, which has tabled its vision, mission and action plans for South Africa 2030. Admitting that the quality of schooling that is available to most people is poor, Professors Malegapuru Makgoba, Jennifer Molwantwa and Ihron Rensburg concluded in a 2011 newspaper article that it is in making knowledge that the nation makes success.

Is a “knowledge economy” our priority, however, when the schooling system is failing too many pupils and our university “national” profile does not compare, in productivity or achievement, with what these three commissioners referred to as “other upper-middle-income countries”?

Only 34% of South African academics have doctorates; graduation rates are poor (15%); and research publication output compares unfavourably with that of Brazil. The way forward – the three commissioners concluded – is to increase doctoral graduates from 1?400 to 5?000 a year, and to increase the proportion of academic staff with doctorates from 34% to 75% towards SA 2030.

This all sounds laudable. But their observations proceeded from an initial error, only to compound a mismatch of context and ambition: South Africa – a country with serious unemployment and literacy problems – cannot meaningfully and productively be classified as an upper-middle-income country. Given that we are not an upper-middle income country, the second error was to assume that the road to success lies primarily in a knowledge economy.

In another mismatch of reality and ambition, the three commissioners placed Brazil, with a population of 200-million, in a direct research-output comparison with South Africa’s 52-million. What they did not make clear is that Brazil’s research measurement is broad-based (outputs of variety are recorded); South Africa’s is constrained by a “colonial cringe” count, according to which preference is granted – for state subsidy to universities – to articles in a very few Northern-based commercial citation indices. For all our grand talk of language policy, our research model – dare I say it! – remains a neocolonial model.

A science and technology drive – education policy-makers led us to believe in the mid-1990s – would solve all our ills. This might have credence in industrious, upper-middle income South Korea. But as we still burble old Soviet-speak (comrades; cadres), we should remain alert to the consequences of a science and technology drive in the noncompetitive former Eastern Europe, with its glut of taxi drivers with engineering doctorates.

We need to get real. The low proportion of academics with doctorates is partly because our universities include fields that, in Europe or the US, are not always part of universities but are housed in specialist institutions: for example, the music conservatoire. To compound an under-par schooling system, the closure of teacher-training colleges and the enclosure of teacher training within the narrow university BEd degree is resulting in a generation of teachers without the necessary content knowledge or skills – say, in English or science – to educate the next generation.

None of what I have said denies that the National Development Plan identifies several tough realities – so tough to some that the plan has hardly got off the ground, challenged as it is by capitalist/socialist divisions within the government itself.

Let me conclude with a few further reality checks.

Both Coetzee (in his letter to Higgins) and Said (in the interview with Higgins) consider critical literacy. Although he offers a practicable path forward, Coetzee rains on the parade. Said, for his part, offers several testing suggestions.

Even if we grant that critical literacy is as important as Higgins claims – says Coetzee – it would be hard to sustain the claim that only the “full apparatus of a humanistic education can produce critical literacy, since it is always open to the objection: if critical literacy is just a skill or set of skills, why not just teach the skill itself … simpler and cheaper?”

Accordingly, as in countless American universities, students, whether in the arts or the medical faculty, might be introduced to two basic, single-semester courses, one titled “Reading and Writing’”, in which students will be trained to dissect arguments and write good expository prose; the other, to be titled “Great Ideas”, in which they will be briefed on main currents of world thought from ancient times to the present.

Said is more “teacherly”-caring while raising crucial pedagogical points. Let us grant critical literacy a centrality in education; but then we are obliged to teach it in a systematic way and not to imagine, as in many humanities and social science disciplines, that students – by a kind of osmosis – will absorb our erudition and eloquence.

One may query whether a concentrated and sensitive reading programme is feasible, given the numbers in mass education, especially as humanistic disciplines experience staffing cuts. Nonetheless, some form of teaching higher-order reading and writing is essential if a humanistic education is to help to educate future citizens who are ­intelligent in discernment and compassionate in their commitment to the ideals and application of fairness and justice.

To convince the professional disciplines of the value of critical literacy – to return to Coetzee’s foreword – the professors might have to climb out of their dugouts, limit their satirical barbs and engage the professional societies (law, accountancy, engineering, medicine) on the need to incorporate a substantial component of humanities education in the several professional-degree syllabuses.

None of these reality checks, however, will ensure academic freedom in higher education (to return to the primary point of Higgins’s analysis). Despite the law of managers overriding the law of professors on university senates and university councils, in spite of nods to thinking citizens in the utilitarian-speak of regulations, Acts and policies, the “culture” of university governance is usually set by the leadership ethos of the vice-chancellor.

As in business culture, “management” – now selected from above, not elected from below by faculty or school – takes its character and behavioural traits from the ethos of its chief executive/vice-chancellor. The reflex action of the insecure manager is invariably command-and-control; goals are usually not “Smart” (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time bound) and performance-management systems are geared to exacting punishment rather than encouraging development.

So, a final reality check: introduce coaching for university managers, most of whom have only scanty, if any, knowledge of leadership and management philosophies, principles or practices. Lest managers be insulted by this suggestion, I should clarify what I mean by coaching. To be coached is not to be mentored or counselled. Coaching seeks, rather, to facilitate the coachee’s own thinking to achieve creative, but realistic, goals. It enhances potential; it is about “whole person” results. Coaching should help the manager to avoid institutional demoralisation with its attendant in-fighting and inefficiencies.

As in the old South Africa, so in the new: the talent of leadership is uneven, whether in government, business, the media or, indeed, institutions of higher learning.

Without enlightened leadership in universities, the worst of managerialism – fear of independent, innovative thought; a refusal to listen; a default mode of authoritarianism – will define and infect the character and practice of the institution. Academic freedom is unlikely to feature on the agenda.

To lament this as a world condition is not sufficient. South Africa – after its struggle against un-freedom – deserves better.

We need not dismiss all of Pandor’s conference address as that of an ANC party-faithful. Her concluding question remains provocative: “What is the language that the humanities have to offer policy-makers?”

Higgins’s book lucidly considers the scope of the challenge.

Michael Chapman is emeritus professor and fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. This is an edited, abbreviated version of his review article to be published in the forthcoming edition of the journal Critical Arts 28(6), edited by Keyan Tomaselli. The journal’s webpage is at

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