As universities around South Africa re-opened for the second half of 2017, trouble started almost immediately. The Cape Peninsula University of Technology was shut down for a week by protests. Durban University of Technology was also in chaos. There have already been rumblings at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), which, together with the University of Cape Town (UCT), are set to open in the second week of August.

UWC and UCT are among a handful of institutions that form the backbone of tertiary education in the country. But most of South Africa’s universities are universities in name only. They offer near-worthless degrees with academic standards below that of a good high school. The result is that every year, thousands of poor students, nearly all black, are cheated. After all the hardship they have gone through and the sacrifices their families have made, in the end the students are left holding a bogus degree. It is a reality so painful and distressing that few venture to say it out loud.

But Professor Jonathan Jansen, the former vice chancellor of the University of the Free State, who was responsible for the transformation of that institution and steered it through the violent student protests of 2015 and 2016, has been ringing the alarm bell loudly for some time now.

Students attack the defaced statue of British mining magnate and politician, Cecil John Rhodes, as it is removed by a crane from its position at the University of Cape Town on April 9, 2015, in Cape Town. Photo: ANP/AFP Rodger Bosch

From a reading of his recent book, As By Fire – The End of the South African University, one concludes that the country’s top six internationally acclaimed universities, which enjoy global recognition for their research facilities and academic standards, are on a trajectory to ruin. Jansen is unsure it can be reversed without a strong push by civil society and a change of government – and both seem unlikely.

Read: South Africa’s student resolution: #FeesMustFall

The seed of destruction was rapid expansion after 1994 at the same time as a steep decline in government funding per student. Wits University, for example, went from a 70% state subsidy in 1994 to 30% by 2014, according to that university’s vice chancellor, Adam Habib. The result was a doubling in tuition fees for students to make up the shortfall. Education became priced beyond reach. The Fees Must Fall protests in 2015 were the wake-up call for this unsustainable situation.

Students march to Parliament protesting for free education in Cape Town. 26 October 2016. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp

Government’s response has not helped – starting with the Minister for Higher Education Blade Nzimande’s pomposity and his dismissivestudents must fall” comment and ending with President Jacob Zuma’s unilateral and populist promise of a zero fee increaseThis is a disaster for vice chancellors in charge of universities with precarious finances, unless significantly more money is made available to them or their students through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

Read: Rhodes Falls – Rhodes statue to be permanently removed from the University of Cape Town campus

A ‘starvation diet’ subsidy system has a pernicious effect: Universities will find themselves inflating enrolment and lowering standards to increase pass rates. They are already in denial about this, but this is precisely what they have been doing for some time now.

Welfarisation

To add to this, the costs a university faces today go way beyond the supply of academic facilities. It is expected to look after the corporeal needs of impoverished students too – a mini welfare city-state, picking up the bill for everything from accommodation and food to health care, social services, counselling, funeral support, transport, laptops, textbooks and even loaning refrigerators to students who live off campus. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this; it is the right thing to do. An enlightened educational facility cannot turn its back on traumatised students who go hungry and homeless, and in some cases, even resort to sex work. But in practice, universities lose their core focus and sink.

Students march to Parliament protesting for free education in Cape Town. 26 October 2016. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp

The ‘welfare expectation’ extends to emotional well-being. Again, it is the proper thing to do, but the effects can be insidious. Rapidly, a university goes from being a safe space for challenging one’s every preconception through a free exchange of ideas to a “safe space” governed by censorship and intimidationexpected to reflect an idealised world that is more ‘ivory tower’ than ever.

Jansen also points out that a culture of intolerance and, in some cases, naked racism has been bred by the protest movement, further eroding academic standards. Libraries, lecture halls and art works are burnt to the ground in the name of decolonisation.

A university environment is much more fragile than even its vulnerable buildings. And its autonomy is increasingly being threatened by the current South African government. Of course, for taking funds from the state, it must be accountable, but this should not give the government the right to meddle in affairs of academic management which it does not even begin to understand. Here again, who teaches what is starting to be determined by ideological demagoguery. Nzimande is trying to impose political appointees on governing boards with empty box-ticking transformational ideas. Universities will simply comply by incubating a new generation of fake professors, as the Nationalist apartheid regime did to bolster Afrikaans self-esteem. The government will pat itself on the back and students will be cheated of quality education for years to come.

Chronic instability

Perhaps the most serious threat is when chronic instability becomes normalised. Speaking at the Cape Town Press Club earlier this year, the University of Cape Town’s vice chancellor Max Price gave an example of universities elsewhere in Africa whose academic year is determined not by the calendar but according to the times it can function between cycles of protests. He framed it in a positive light, an example of how things can be managed if needs be, but what was missing from that equation is what Jansen calls “chronic instability”.

The universities do not even have adequate funds for the academic programme, let alone the welfare of students and their workers.

A university functioning under such conditions will almost immediately be abandoned by the students with the best potential and soon after shed its best academic staff, if not physically then in terms of morale. This is what destroyed the greatest universities in the rest of Africa. It is already evident at UCT, Wits, UWC and elsewhere.

A South African student walks past the boarded up statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa, 08 April 2015. Photo: EPA/Nic Bothma

The next pin to fall is the withdrawal by donors, upon which the best institutions are absolutely dependent. Research facilities simply cannot function in instability and without foreign funds. Even during the relatively short Fees Must Fall protests in 2015, people’s research projects were dying (some literally) in laboratories as campuses shut down. It is possible to lose years of work in a few fatal weeks. As Jansen told the Cape Town Press Club in July 2017, a university takes a century to build but it can be laid waste in a matter of two to three years.

If I read Jansen correctly, the nail in the coffin may well be the the “insourcing” of workersIt is something that could not be accomplished in broader society despite two decades of campaigns against labour broking. But because universities are ideologically vulnerable and their managements are enlightened individuals, not businessmen, universities have agreed to end exploitative and manifestly unjust practices by bringing their workers onto the payroll and into the university community. Once more, it is the right thing to do. But the problem is the universities do not even have adequate funds for the academic programme, let alone the welfare of students and their workers. That is the brutal truth.

The casualties could well be the very places from which the next crop of graduates should emerge with ideas and the skills to lift future generations out of poverty.

The shortfall has been made up by emergency measures. At UCT academic staff salaries were sacrificed. But this is unsustainable and has serious consequences down the line for academic outcomes.

The pitiful irony is that in this “misguided revolution” (Jansen’s words), led by a relatively privileged and articulate middle class on “elite” campuses, the casualty will be the few institutions that stand the best chance of becoming bastions of resistance to a corrupt and negligent government. The casualties could well be the very places from which the next crop of graduates should emerge with ideas and the skills to lift future generations out of poverty. My question is: What sort of judges and lawmakers, thinkers and policy makers, civil servants and leaders will emerge from South Africa’s universities in the future?