Time to deal with higher education’s dirtiest secret

Two major issues have arisen in higher education in the past week. One was the release of the Heher Commission’s “fees report” and the second was the Council for Higher Education’s release of a list determining the status of law degree accreditation at South African universities.

Both these documents have generated much debate and outrage on the trajectory of the South African higher education system.

The fees report came under fire for its suggestion that the private banking sector be involved in a government-backed loan scheme to fund students, in effect perpetuating the very commodification model that students have been protesting about.

The involvement of the private sector in student loan schemes has been a spectacular failure in the US, where student debt is considered to have the potential to be the next sub-prime crisis.

The CHE’s list of law degree accreditations caused a gasp as the University of Cape Town, considered the leading university on the continent, found itself on track to have its accreditation withdrawn.

It is not yet clear what UCT has not done to find itself in such a precarious position.

[The council also stopped Walter Sisulu University from offering LLB degrees from January 2019.

Both these developments in higher education require those of us in the higher education system to really wake up and fight in a principled fashion to save the system, because we know these issues are manifesting in a disastrous way within the our lecture halls.

Within SA higher education is a deep conspiracy of silence, our dirty little secret – that we are churning out, by the thousands, students who cannot even string sentences together, most of whom plagiarise extensively through undergraduate courses to land up on the graduation stage.

The reality of South African universities is that in terms of teaching and learning the majority have become not much differentiable from rote learning colleges where students are not expected to master advanced level reading, critique and writing in order to earn their degree.

We need to say this and say it properly, too much is at stake.

Therefore, while it is not clear why the CHE may withdraw the UCT law degree accreditation, I doubt UCT’s law degree presents quality problems that are worse than some of those universities that have retained their qualifications.

Sure, there may be questions of transformation and curriculum datedness. However, knowing the very poor quality of learning that is occurring everywhere in our system, it is very unlikely that the graduates produced by UCT are worse than those of elsewhere.

Given that large South African universities are faced with high student numbers and low staff numbers, the capacity to adequately assess assignments rigorously does not exist.

This is particularly the case in the humanities/social sciences, where our undergraduates no longer bother to touch a book – and yet this is the very core of our training.

I challenge you, reader, to speak to any undergraduate; you will get very depressing responses.

A colleague joked that the only effort students are putting in is to type their names and student numbers at the top of papers – the rest is a copy and paste job.

Now, with the intensification of managerialism in our universities and the smashing of academic freedom, raising questions about the poor quality students we are producing within the system is tantamount to treason.

Earlier, a colleague from a university that fared better than UCT on the CHE accreditation showed me an instruction from the university managers to push up the pass rates to a minimum of 85%, regardless of the capacity of the students.

Yes, you read that right, dear reader – the university expected them to pass unpassable students for the sake of the numbers. Did the CHE look into that practice?

Depressingly, South African higher education has become a game of smoke and mirrors, silence and compliance. And black students suffer as we walk them across graduation stages with hollow qualifications.

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