In the higher education crisis, there are so many different perceptions, opinions and reactions bouncing about and clashing with one another, that we are not getting anywhere


There is no simple solution, but government ministers, university heads, lecturers, students, union members, parents and members of society urgently need to come together to try and find common ground.

The obligatory starting point is for everyone to commit to acting in good faith in order to reach a negotiated agreement. Acting in good faith is not a soft concept, it is the foundation of ethical and effective leadership on a personal and group level.

All those who don’t keep deadlines, change demands, don’t show up at negotiations (or participate for 15 minutes and then leave) are not acting in good faith and they are not demonstrating the ethical and effective leadership that we desperately need in order to stop the conflict from further escalation.

Conflict negotiation is key and, as the co-founders of Harvard’s pioneering programme on conflict negotiation, Roger Fisher and William Ury, explained that conflicting parties cannot make a wise decision about whether to accept a negotiated agreement or to walk away from it, unless they know what their best alternative is, and exactly what is at risk if a compromise or negotiated agreement isn’t reached.

Having a good alternative to a negotiated agreement or BATNA, as they called it, increases your negotiating power. When you know you have a good alternative, you do not need to concede as much.

Right now, in the higher education crisis, nobody has a good alternative and the whole country is at risk. Which is why some commentators are calling this a ‘black swan event’. The term was popularised by finance professor and former Wall Street trader, Nassim Taleb, and refers to volatile, complex systems that have been suppressed which, as a result, become extremely fragile, more dangerous and less predictable—and with the potential to blow up. Such a situation can have a knock-on effect for the whole society.

Taleb explains that history is replete with such examples—from the French Revolution to the Bolsheviks—and yet, somehow, humans remain unable to process what they mean, and this will happen again.

In South Africa, we do not have time on our side. Trust had broken down and our society is so fractured right now that certain quarters believe the BATNA is either for our universities to close for a shorter or longer period, or to double up on security and policing with increased arrests, or that the country must just cough up and declare education free for all, regardless of the country’s ability to finance this.

Pursuing any of these actions without considering the root causes and ramifications would be disastrous for South Africa and for higher education. For higher education, it could mean the loss of academics and the growth of private higher education institutions, which will not be able to deliver on the scale the country needs. This would erode our public institutions and further disadvantage the financially in need—the very students that the fees movement is intended to support.

When I’m asked whether we are experiencing a black swan event, I’m in two minds. What I know is that, unless we start seeing all organs of state (including National Treasury and all stakeholders) in the many crises we are facing—from the student protests to Minister Gordhan’s summons to the SABC and SAA—starting to act in good faith and with an ethical consciousness, the remnants of stability and control will quite literally explode. At that stage, I will no longer be in two minds. None of us will.

This does not give any of us comfort, but we need to be very aware that universities (as they have been for centuries) are the stress valves of society. Last year, we had all the warning signals of what was to come if this problem was not timeously and thoroughly addressed. It was, therefore, wholly and absolutely predictable what would happen when Minister Nzimande announced that there could be a fee increase.

It is not possible for our universities, by themselves, to address the needs, interests and expectations of the stakeholder group that is demanding free education for all. Universities do not have the resources to do this, and the governing bodies of our universities have been given a hospital pass by the government that has wedged them between the devil and the deep blue sea. The reality is that our Vice-Chancellors are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

The focus must turn to the state because the role and leadership of the state is paramount in this crisis. Once again, what is very clear through all of this is the lack of ethical and effective leadership, the lack of good faith and the lack of responsibility by the government.

We need look no further than King IV, which comes out at the beginning of November, to see the prominence that Mervyn King places on effective ethical leadership at an individual and collective level. The report says: ‘Ethical leadership is exemplified by responsibility, accountability, fairness and transparency. Ethical and effective leadership should reinforce each other’.

In its definition of responsibility, King IV says: “The governing body should assume ultimate responsibility for the organisation, as well as the protection of resources, including financial, human, social and relational, and intellectual and natural capitals.”

I want to end with Harvard University economics Professor Amartya Sen’s concept of ‘capability’. He argues that governments should be measured against the concrete capabilities of their citizens. I would argue that education is the cornerstone of capability and that free higher education for all academically deserving students in need should be a right. With sound planning, it is also sustainable. For the student protestors to accept this would require good faith all round. At this stage, there is no other alternative.

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