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The significance of Max Price's 'Statues and Storms. Leading through change' for higher education public policy in South Africa

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by Dr Douglas Blackmur




The events of the FeesMustFall (FMF) challenge to the South African government’s higher education policies, through its assault on individual universities and the higher education system during the period 2015 to 2017, have seen the emergence of a relatively extensive and varied academic literature. At the time of writing this article – January/February 2024 – the most recent addition is the book by Max Price, “Statues and Storms. Leading through change” (hereinafter Statues and Storms) (Price, 2023). Price was the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT) from 2008 to 2018. Statues and Storms arguably contains much that is relevant to the quality and development of higher education public policy in South Africa, matters that, however, were not Price’s explicit purpose to address. This article, on the other hand, using Statues and Storms as the point of departure, explores the national public policy significance of certain of the issues and events it documents. Some of the discussion in this article is, at times, speculative and/or conjectural.  The article is a preliminary enquiry which raises certain public policy issues without always offering a final judgement on their significance. It is thus an invitation to scholars to conduct further research which will hopefully both assess the quality of the analysis in this article and unearth further matters not considered here at all.




The events of the FeesMustFall challenge to the South African government’s higher education policies, through its assault on individual universities and the higher education system during the period 2015 to 2017, have seen the emergence of a relatively extensive and varied academic literature. A few examples include Habib (2019), Jansen (2017), Booysen (2016), Chikane (2018), and Benatar (2021). Some of this literature has been discussed previously (see, for example, Blackmur, 2019, 2021, 2023).


At the time of writing this article – January/February 2024 – the most recent addition is the book by Max Price, “Statues and Storms. Leading through change” (hereinafter Statues and Storms) (Price, 2023). Price was the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT) from 2008 to 2018. Both Habib and Jansen were former Vice Chancellors whose books, in common with Price’s, employ a participant observation and engagement method of analysis, as does the book by Chikane, a prominent leader in the FMF movement.  Statues and Storms arguably contains much that is relevant to the quality and development of higher education public policy in South Africa, matters that, however, were not Price’s explicit purpose to address. This article, on the other hand, using Statues and Storms as the point of departure, explores the national public policy significance of certain of the issues and events it documents.


The waves of protests that erupted in 2015 constituted a national phenomenon not seen in universities since 1994. It contained a wide range of demands of which reduced fees – and ultimately free higher education to students – and fundamental changes to curricular were the most important. The years between 1994 and 2015 were, however, far from a haven of complete tranquility in South African universities. Concerns over several specific events, such as initiation ceremonies, were prominent in public debate. Any suggestions, however, that these tensions were clear portents of what ultimately became a serious and often violent national challenge to government higher education policy, through rendering the universities ungovernable (Price, 2023: 168), would be a paradigm case of hindsight bias.


On the surface, despite these ongoing tensions in the period leading up to 2015, the atmosphere at universities such as UCT nevertheless seemed within the bounds of normality. This is captured in Price’s remarks about UCT graduation ceremonies:


“…, I would meet three generations of family members - all of whom took enormous pride in having studied at and graduated from UCT. … more moving was the regular experience of being introduced by a first-generation graduate to her parents from a rural village, … They could not contain their emotions about graduation – their son or daughter now a doctor, accountant, lawyer or engineer. This was the visible evidence that UCT was playing a role in transforming … lives…” (Price, 2023: 9).


By 2014, on the other hand, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) had concluded that progress in the higher education transformation project left a great deal to be desired. It decided that, on the basis of “a number of complaints on transformation issues in universities”, it would conduct “a holistic examination of transformation in institutions of higher learning in South Africa”. (SAHRC, 2017: vii).


The final Report, issued on 9 December 2016, although overtaken by events in some respects, argued, on the basis of evidence belonging to the period before 2015, that transformation in higher education was unduly slow for a wide range of reasons. These included a lack of a shared understanding of what was meant by ‘transformation’ in the South African higher education context; a lack of institutional will to address transformation issues; lack of commitment to multilingualism; slow progress in changing student and staff demographics; inadequate accommodation, which hindered racial integration in university residences; governance failures; underfunding of universities by the state; ineffective complaints handling systems; subcultures of discrimination and domination within universities; and a lack of adequate oversight by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) to ensure that institutions of higher learning did in fact transform (SAHRC, 2017: viii-ix).


Max Price’s book exposes many policy issues that are not considered in this article. Had space permitted, government policy with respect to the outsourcing of various university services; the politisation of the university; the evolution of the ‘welfare university’; the massification of higher education; the ‘missing middle’ in fees’ policy; and labour law issues in universities would have been analysed in some detail. Three significant public policy areas arising out of Statues and Storms are discussed in this article: the quality of the information and analysis available to the government on the performance of the higher education system; FMF Mark 2 and the adequacy of current public higher education funding policy; and some public policy issues in the decolonisation of higher education curricular. Concluding remarks follow.


The quality of the information and analysis available to the government regarding the state of the South African universities and the FMF challenge


The evidence collected by the SAHRC in its 2014 enquiry (evidence had also been assembled in 2008, 2010, and 2012 by other public investigations) suggested that all was not well in the South African university system albeit not at or near boiling point. But presumably the full picture was more complex.


Max Price later referred to the “colonial institutional landscape and culture of UCT” (Price, 2023: 197). Earlier critics had alleged a racist institutional culture at UCT and in other universities (Chikane, 2018: 25, 37, 39). Such a culture (this term also needs clear definition) does not, however, emerge overnight and was arguably present when Price conducted his due diligence before accepting the post of Vice Chancellor. It was still present eight years into his appointment.


This suggests important research questions. Do the records reveal – in the years leading up to the FMF challenge to the university system and to the government – any individual students, any student body, alumni, convocation, staff association, and/or any trade union making submissions on matters that subsequently informed the demands of FMF, to the appropriate senior UCT university management, council, senate, institutional forum, and especially the UCT Ombud, a major source of information and advice to the UCT Council (Mpati et al, 2023)? Were, furthermore, such submissions made to state bodies such as the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), Council on Higher Education (CHE), Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC), DHET, Minister and Ministry of Higher Education and Training, Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Innovation, opposition parties, and the media? Did the South African State Security Agency (SSA) offer assessments to the government of the levels of volatility of student politics – accusations were made during the FMF protests of security service, foreign and domestic, involvement (Price, 2023: 301-302)? Did ANC-affiliated student bodies provide similar intelligence?


If even a reasonable amount of this communication on the state of the universities was managed and analysed effectively, the principal decision- makers seem not to have taken it seriously, or not to have converted it into concrete policy decisions including plans for timely implementation. Jansen argues that “the universities themselves were caught napping, unprepared for the sudden backlash for which they had neither the resources to meet student demands, the skill to negotiate the new politics, nor the security to protect campus lives and property” (Jansen, 2017: 1).


Paradoxically, however, university vice chancellors were excused from this criticism. They, according to Jansen, had for several years warned the African National Congress (ANC) national government of the “dangers of the decline in government subsidies and the steady increase in student fees” (Jansen, 2017: 2; Habib, 2019: x, xii; Price, 2023: 96-105). Perhaps these warnings lacked sufficient credibility: maybe the government believed that they contained an element of crying wolf. And ‘dangers’ could refer to a wide variety of more or less likely financial possibilities.


The reasons the government was apparently so poorly informed regarding the very wide range of pressures within the university system in the mid-2000s require identification, analysis and reform of some, perhaps all, of the means by which it develops and implements public higher education policy. A national enquiry into these matters, in order to effectively minimise the chances of being caught again by surprise, is indicated. There may, indeed, be a systemic proneness in government decision-making processes and structures to being “caught napping” across a range of policy matters, which needs to be addressed quickly. The literature on surprise attacks might be drawn upon in this regard. It discusses the risks of an “absence of a mechanism for aggregating, sifting, and analysing warning information flowing in from many sources and for pushing it up to the decision-making level of government” (Posner, 2009: 123).


An enquiry arguably should commence with an examination of the quality of the work over the last 15 or so years of the higher education regulatory bodies, CHE and HEQC – its terms of reference must embrace examining the possibility that either or both bodies may have experienced regulatory capture. Surely such bodies ought to have kept, and keep, a watching brief on the changing environment and nature of South African universities, thereby to act as an early warning system to government of stresses in the system that may require a sometimes urgent policy response.


At the individual university level, government might amend institutional statutes to require that ‘the skill to negotiate the new politics’ forms part of the selection criteria, and performance contracts, for senior university management including vice chancellors. A further provision consistent with improving public confidence in managerial integrity would be to require all university academics, at and above the position of Dean, and equivalent administrative staff, to display their up-to-date curricula vitae, and copies of their postgraduate thesis(es), on the appropriate website. The legislation governing the activities and responsibilities of the regulatory agencies, moreover, might be amended to endow them with defined, but wide, powers as an economic regulator, with an emphasis on higher education costs, revenues and fees (and any other higher education economic matters they select, or are referred to them by government or other stakeholders).


FMF Mark 2? Will current public higher education funding policy survive?


Assuming that there is a significant limit in the not-too-distant future to the resources taxpayers (Blackmur, 2023: 42) are prepared to see allocated to higher education, then the cost/revenue pressures that contributed to the massive disruption of the universities by FMF could again become of concern. A repeat performance of the FMF response is arguably thus within the realm of possibility.


Even now there are straws in the wind such as a scathing report on the quality of governance and racial issues at UCT, investigations into accusations of inappropriate university initiation ceremonies, allegations of inadequate university student accommodation, and protests over the arguably appalling performance of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) (Mpati et al, 2023; Hlati, 2024; Kahn, 2024). This helps make the case for major, and urgent, public enquiries into both the costs of the higher education system and its component universities, and the economics of non-taxpayer funding options.


These enquiries arguably must, amongst other things, challenge several fallacious sacred cows such as the principle of the desirability of undiluted institutional autonomy, arguments that higher education must not be ‘commodified’, and also is a ‘public good’ – it isn’t (Blackmur, 2023: 43-44). The concept of a ‘public good’ originated in Economics (Backhouse, 2023: 354-355) and is associated with scholars such as Paul Samuelson. It has arguably been over-simplified by a wide variety of non-economists to justify a political position in favour of taxpayer funding of higher education. In this context, a public policy that permits all students to take loans that can cover all the costs of obtaining a qualification arguably ranks highly amongst the options for consideration by an enquiry (Blackmur, 2023). It would, amongst other things, dispose of the concept of the ‘missing middle’, an artifact of a certain specific financial plan, which has distorted public debate and policy thinking (Price, 2023: 108).


The element of urgency in these proposals arises because of recent, current, and likely future significant upward pressures on the costs of providing higher education qualifications and other university functions. This is a huge field of analysis (essential reading includes: Moodie, 2016, especially chapters 1 and 2) and only a few issues can be explored even briefly in this article. General inflation is one of these pressures, exchange rate weakness is another.

Jonathan Jansen has developed the concept of the ‘welfare university’ (Jansen, 2017: 9-10, 172-193). He has expanded earlier ideas advanced by Charles van Onselen that South African governments were “in danger of confusing … welfare and educational responsibilities to the detriment of both” (Jansen, 2017: 172). This has come to pass. Jansen concludes that “in recent years South African universities have gradually taken on more and more social welfare functions that stretch way beyond what was previously expected from a modern university” (Jansen, 2017: 177). The costs of managing these functions have included those associated with the often significant related expansion of university administrative systems, the costs of many of which are not accommodated in taxpayer subsidies to higher education (Jansen, 2017: 187; Price, 2023: 73, 87, 91).


And the prospects for the future are for greater welfarisation in terms of cost and scope (Jansen, 2017: 180, 181, 189). A harbinger of this can be found in the United Kingdom where recent research has examined the “effects of the cost-of-living crisis on students” (Freeman, 2023: 1). This reveals that “universities are being forced to take steps which would have been unthinkable” just a few years ago: “university leaders and students’ union officers have pushed boundaries to get students more help” (Freeman, 2023: 2). The additional costs of such assistance is, however, unsustainable (Freeman, 2023: 3).


The terms of reference of the enquiry into the costs and revenues of the university system that this article has advocated would arguably need to include the future of the welfare university in South Africa and the possible consequences of its failure. Thinking about the balance sheet issues facing South African universities would also need to embrace matters such as policies needed to improve staff and capital productivity. Structural issues are also relevant. Higher education debates in South Africa are conducted on the assumption that the vertically integrated structure of qualifications’ production is permanent (design, delivery, assessment, certification). At some point, however, public policy may well need to question the utility of this assumption. Costs may be reduced, and benefits increased, if, for example, the design and/or assessment stages were conducted in independent institutions.


Several South African universities suffer certain major adverse pressures on their costs and income that can only possibly be alleviated and reversed through major public policy interventions – of types that do not offend against Rawlsian principles of social justice (Blackmur, 2023: p.42). The source of some of these pressures is to be found in serious corruption in these universities.


The evidence for this state of affairs is analysed in Jonathan Jansen’s book “Corrupted. A study of chronic dysfunction in South African universities” (Jansen, 2023). He showed that in some universities there exists looting of “institutional resources on an industrial scale”, some of which is linked to the growth of the welfare university (Jansen, 2023: 5; Price, 2023: 73). Jansen drew attention to the consequent “high costs of institutional instability for staff and students, as well as for the disadvantaged communities surrounding the campus” (Jansen, 2023: 3). Put succinctly, corruption diverts financial and human resources from the academic project, inflates costs, and reduces income, which infusions of additional taxpayer funds can only make worse.


A key public policy question is why, as it seems, the national government was unaware of the extent of this systemic malaise. This reinforces the major importance of the earlier proposal here for an urgent national enquiry (with judicial status?) into the methods and performance of the government’s key higher education regulators and advisers such as CHE, HEQC, SAQA, and DHET. Regulatory failure may be one of many possible egregious systemic failures in higher education. There have, to be sure, been ministerial and other interventions in some university activities – since 1998 at least (Jansen, 2023: 254-256). These have been piecemeal examinations on a case-by-case basis: systemic implications, and the extent to which South Africa’s higher education legislation has enabled (or not addressed) opportunities for corruption and other deviations from the purposes of higher education, have been underemphasised.


The probable adverse impact of these circumstances on the reputation of the South African higher education system is unlikely to be trivial. Potential consequences are especially important for university revenues. Some university systems, such as that of Australia, for example, earn income from exports of higher education services, which is of national economic significance (Universities Australia, 2020, 2023; Rhodes University Business School, 2023). Such an opportunity will be denied to South Africa under current conditions. Even relatively high performing universities will suffer some collateral damage given that the system’s quality is compromised, and not only to their international activities but also to the acceptability of their qualifications globally.


In addition to the problems already raised, seizing these opportunities requires that certain other issues be addressed by South African policymakers. They include ensuring that all South African higher education qualifications are internationally competitive in terms of scholarly and intellectual standards; removing any visa barriers; combatting xenophobia; resisting hostile attitudes in some university quarters to entrepreneurial activity; and insisting on regulation that is hospitable to international trade and investment in higher education.


Objections will, of course, be raised to some of these policies. They can, however, be designed and implemented in ways sensitive to some alternative conceptions of the purposes of universities. The extent to which the South African higher education system might benefit from income generated by the export of qualifications will largely depend, however, on the nature of such compromises and whether they discourage international students. If sufficient numbers were deterred this would result in South Africa, perhaps inadvertently, pursuing a policy of autarky in higher education.


The extent of any legislative and/or regulatory impediments to innovation in qualifications, and the marketing of higher education services more generally, needs to be identified by appropriate public enquiries. Intelligent removal of such impediments can enhance the flow of third-stream net income. Two examples are offered for consideration. Universities may offer a fee-for-service “walk in” assessment and certification of a person’s knowledge of, say, Strategic Management. Costs would be minimised by employing existing processes. There would be no entry rules, thereby eliminating costs on this account. This is a form of Recognition of Prior Learning (or of recognition of existing skills) without, however, the costs associated with the traditional rule-bound model. 


Consideration might also be given to allowing students to design some or all of their degree programmes. Such degrees would be issued by, say, the national higher education department, or an appropriate regulatory authority, or a university body such as Universities South Africa. This qualifications’ model could be built on the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) system. A major advantage of this system is the relatively low fees, which include the costs of existing, highly credible quality assurance and assessment processes. Appropriate regulation would nevertheless clearly be necessary, as would negotiations with international (and domestic) high reputation universities.


This is not, however, the place to present a fully specified MOOC degree model. The important point is that South African higher education public policy, regulation and legislation would require significant amendment if this model were to be awarded a place in the higher education system. The key question is whether, if fully implemented, this model would allow significant numbers of South African tertiary students to obtain high quality degrees at a fraction of current costs. Given the vital importance of this, as demonstrated by the FMF protests and sometimes physically violent agitation, evaluation of a fully specified model is arguably an immediate priority for the national government.


Serious opposition to these proposals, however, is predicable to the extent that the MOOC model might attract students away from existing universities. They may be tempted to protect their existing position and status by means that include political pressure, possibly in an informal alliance with HEC and HEQC. These bodies in the past have erected various barriers to entry against international universities attempting to operate in South Africa (Blackmur, 2004; Blackmur, 2006).


This brief discussion of some of the cost and revenue pressures in the South African higher education system maintains that there is an element of urgency in conducting the various enquiries that have been recommended (Moodie, 2016). The durability of the 2016-17 settlement with FMF is not guaranteed, indeed it looks increasingly fragile. And there is a wider context in which the future of higher education will be determined. William Gumede has argued that the essential dimensions of this context are “corruption, incompetence and policy populism”, which together may precipitate an economic crisis in which “higher education subsidies, for institutions and students, will have to be scrapped” (Gumede, 2023). Should this come to pass, student reactions are unlikely to be mild or delicate.


Decolonisation of higher education curricular: some public policy issues


Statues and Storms addressed many aspects of FMF’s insistence that students receive ‘free, quality, decolonised’ higher education (Price, 2023: 69-86, 146, 201-202, 229, 265-6, 283). The notion of decolonised higher education embraces an extremely wide range of concepts and issues, much of which is disputed. Himonga and Diallo assert that “the definition of decolonisation is unsettled, if not contested” (Himonga & Diallo, 2017). They cite Price and Ally in this context as arguing that “decolonisation … should certainly not be reduced to some naïve … desire to return to a pristine, unblemished Africa before the arrival of the settlers” (Himonga & Diallo, 2017). Even this assessment, however, would be considered controversial in some quarters by its use of the word ‘settlers’: just who are the settlers in the long sweep of southern African history?


A model of curriculum de-colonisation has been presented by Conrad Hughes, the Campus and Secondary Principal at the International School of Geneva (Hughes, 2021). It repays study as part of the process of getting to grips with some difficult definitional and content matters. It stimulates, amongst other things, certain questions (with few direct answers), for example, about the study of historical writing and analysis in a de-colonised curriculum. Would this deal with slavery in all societies and across all times including modern slavery; with empires and imperialism in similar vein; with the status of women everywhere; with religion; with racial prejudice; with monarchy; with exploitation in all its forms and in every society; and with ‘myths’ in all societies?


In common with traditional social science and humanities disciplines, Hughes’s article contains extensive jargon and, particularly to the uninitiated, opaque concepts. What methods of enquiry, furthermore, would be approved? Will Critical Race Theory be adopted as paradigmatic? Does Hughes ask if concepts such as ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ possess any epistemological integrity? ‘Great person’ approaches to historical writing are rejected by Hughes on a priori grounds. Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and Gilles Deleuze are embraced almost uncritically.


A principal objection to the Hughes’ model, however, is that he rejects the concept of standards in intellectual and scholarly enquiry (and presumably everywhere else). If this were ultimately to inform the redesign of curricular in South African higher education, then fundamental questions about the value, relevance, credibility, reputation, and future of the universities would be at the top of the public policy agenda, and not only in South Africa.


Claims that decolonisation of the curriculum in universities (variously and widely conceptualised) was a “good thing” were certainly a major component of the extensive higher education transformation agenda of FMF. A key question for this article is whether there is a role for government in a process of major curriculum change. Is the nature of university curricular a proper subject for public regulation? Assuming that it is for purposes of discussion, what matters would have to be taken into account if the South African government were contemplating using its powers in this regard? Issues to do with academic freedom (constitutionally protected in South Africa) and institutional autonomy would certainly be raised. These are two of the sacred cows in South African higher education, although arguably rarely respected in principle and/or practice by FMF and some academic staff.


To the extent that the FMF assertions regarding, for example, the “toxic” nature of the “institutional culture” in many South African universities were accurate, it may be relevant to observe that such apartheid characteristics apparently continued post-1994 under circumstances ostensibly of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Both of these thus may well be candidates for a comprehensive reassessment by the government and the regulators of their appropriateness to contemporary and future South African higher education.


Given the complex issues associated with definitions of decolonisation, and the wide and often contentious nature of what decolonised curricular might look like, there is a case for government to require that regulators audit samples of redesigned, decolonised curricular against certain principles which, of course, will no doubt be questioned by some. Such curricular samples will, amongst other things, thus be expected to explain and justify their definitions, educational philosophies, and operational details together with analyses of their particular pros and cons. A range of exemplars might thereby be developed over time, from which decolonisation projects might benefit. Such regulation would necessarily have to be conducted in terms of the principles of efficient regulation, which may well require closer public evaluation and supervision of the performance of the regulators themselves.


One further advantage of public regulation would be to add credibility to the decolonisation process without stultifying innovation in curriculum design. How do we know, for example, that ‘inappropriate’ colonial thought wouldn’t simply be replaced by, say,  “pseudo-Fanonist  political ideology” or ScienceMustFall nostrums (Price, 2023: 146, 265-266, 283), or by curricular consistent with universities operating more like party political schools than as specified in their legislated purposes (Habib, 2019: 201-204), if each university were to have final authority over the design of decolonised curricular?


Matters of academic freedom and institutional autonomy come to the fore here, but as noted earlier, these values have not always commanded respect in the past in all parts of the South African higher education system. Just who might be involved in creating (and eventually revising) decolonised curricular is clearly an important policy matter for government. This decision arguably cannot be left to internal university processes alone: something as revolutionary as the curriculum decolonisation process must be conducted under the protection of a complex of safeguards of the global credibility of South African university qualifications.


This discussion by no means exhausts the list of matters that a government considering forms of public intervention, or specific input into certain aspects of university curriculum decolonisation, needs to consider. Other matters include recognising the massive complexity of the decolonisation enterprise in that “good learning design aligns learning goals, learning activities, and assessment”, while culture, careers, and knowledge are “useful concepts for encapsulating three central aspects of university curriculum” (Moodie, 2016: 63-65, 68, 71, 73, 81).


To what extent, moreover, are employers’ and students’ views concerning curriculum change to be accepted as dominant contributions; are current structures of subjects, courses, semesters, and assessments to be considered sacrosanct; is the internationalism of curricular an acceptable objective; is it lawful for academics to be assigned ‘decolonial scores’ by students (Price, 2023: 229); are ‘Western’ sports such as soccer to be banned from university campuses; and how are the inevitable conflicts over these, and a multitude of other issues, to be resolved? And unintended consequences and black swans will almost certainly complicate decision-making and execution, perhaps beyond any reasonable expectations.


One conclusion is certain. A ‘revolutionary’ reform of higher education curricular, however desirable in itself, will not just be extremely complex. It is likely to be exceptionally costly as well. And perhaps more costly than it could be, given that it is politically impossible in South Africa to contract with private bodies, however well qualified, to participate in the curriculum re-design process.


The analysis in this article is, in a sense, back where it started: what should be the sources of funding for the costs associated with the decolonisation of the curriculum? Universities are presumably unable to provide funding from internal sources. Should the taxpayer provide the necessary resources? Does government have the fiscal and political capacity to increase certain taxes, borrow the funds, or redirect public expenditures from other budgets for, say, social grants and/or expanding early childhood education?


All of these, especially the latter, raise serious matters of equity and fairness (Blackmur, 2023: 41-43): why should taxpayer funds be devoted to financing curriculum change the benefits of which will accrue almost exclusively to university graduates? Curriculum reform pressures may, moreover, extend beyond issues of decolonisation. Demands may be made to, say, de-gender, or to de-ableist, the curriculum. Responding to these would clearly have major cost implications.




A paradox confronts researchers of the FMF movement (and all other fallist movements in South African higher education). On the one hand, UCT – and many other universities – was accused of being tainted by a long-standing toxic culture of institutional racism and an inappropriate colonial curriculum. On the other, it seems that more and more students from historically disadvantaged families were increasingly anxious to enrol in degree studies there, even though presumably more culturally appropriate alternatives such as the University of the Western Cape were available.


Price’s accounts of proud parents and graduates invites the question as to why such students would wish to study under UCT’s allegedly toxic conditions. And, perhaps more to the point, why were national governments apparently relatively complacent with respect to this culture in what was often called Africa’s premier university? The accusations were not made in secret! The paradox, however, may be more apparent than real. It may well oversimplify extremely complex patterns of decisions and events. It nevertheless stimulates some useful questions and ideas.


In addition to the public policy issues raised in this article, others of relevance emanating from the material in Statues and Storms include the nature of government attitudes and policies towards universities as corporate entities, and some of their staff, acting as partisan advocates of specific political, economic, social, religious, cultural, and other ideologies in ways inconsistent with liberal values such as those found in the South African Constitution. Another concerns the extent to which the government is prepared to tolerate the use of violence (physical and/or mental) in the determination of public policy in a democracy, and the proper role of the police on university campuses.


If there is a significant possibility that a FMF Mark 2 will challenge the national government in the foreseeable future in ways reminiscent of 2015/17, then government arguably ought to be better prepared than previously. This article argues that such preparation requires, amongst other things, a public enquiry into the quality of the government’s methods of developing higher education public policy and especially into the efficiency of the relevant regulators in providing information and advice on changes in the functioning of the university system.


The addition of a University Complaints Regulator to the institutional structure, either as a separate entity or as part of revising existing arrangements, might be the best way of creating an early warning system regarding emerging instabilities in the universities. Such a body might liaise closely with a University Economic Regulator. This would mean that individual university councils would be deprived of their final authority to determine student fees.


Other public enquiries advocated in this article include major, and urgent, public examinations of both the costs of the higher education system and its component universities, and the economics of non-taxpayer funding options. This latter is important because it would necessarily expose the model of a full cost student loan system to public analysis and further review beyond that contained in the Heher report (The Presidency, 2017). An essential dimension of this model is typically ignored in public debate: a critical source of funding the current costs of obtaining university qualifications is the future income that graduates earn as a result of their university qualifications.


This article has suggested that a review of higher education legislation is also warranted to determine if there are any statutory barriers to the proper functioning of the university system, especially to innovation in qualifications and the development of extra sources of third-stream income. The model for this could be the exhaustive analysis of state and national legislation in Australia in the 1990s as part of a National Competition Policy.


There is arguably a place for government engagement in any process of curriculum reform in South African universities. Students, academics, and a host of other stakeholders clearly have vital roles to play. But control of the agenda and of who participates in the process, and especially the making of final decisions, cannot be left exclusively to them: there are risks of conflicts of interest, serious disputes over, say, ideological issues, as well as cost considerations all of which establish a vital public interest, and therefore the major role for government, in the outcomes of curriculum reform.


Perhaps the most important of these is the effect of reformed curricular on the international reputation of South African higher education qualifications. A high reputation is an extremely significant national asset. Curriculum matters are, of course, not the only determinant of reputation. The nature and performance of the higher education system is the ultimate influence, and intelligent national higher education public policy, informed by an appropriate historical perspective, is a key to success.




I thank Professor Glyn Davis AC for comments on an earlier draft of this article. I also acknowledge the input of my partner, Ms Gina Verberne. All errors and interpretations are entirely my responsibility.




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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

Phone: +27 (0) 21 201 1589



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