There was some good news for South Africa’s tertiary education sector last week.
Four universities made it into the list of the top 500 universities in the world in terms of the respected Academic Ranking of World Universities.
The top-ranked African institution was the University of the Witwatersrand, which came in at 203 of 500.
The University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal joined Wits in this hallowed company that includes Ivy League giants and some of Europe’s centuries-old schools.
Given that there are more than 200 000 such institutions around the world – 5 000 of which are considered very good and worthy of mention in respectable company – featuring in the top 500 is a big deal.
That club is dominated by the US and Europe, and features many institutions from the technologically cutting edge countries in the East where innovation is second nature.
The dominance of those countries is no accident. It can be attributed to a number of factors, not least among them resources.
Hundreds of millions and billions have been poured into those institutions of higher learning in past centuries.
The general rule has been that the better resourced, the better the education and research outcomes, the more attractive the teaching experience, the more valuable the graduates and the more prestigious the name.
Some have taken centuries to build their prestige, while others have relied on money and ambition.
Beyond resources and history, the countries with the most high-flying institutions have something else in common: a hunger for knowledge and an appreciation for the role of education in making a nation great.
In South Africa, excellence has gone hand in hand with our history of privilege and disadvantage.
The institutions that occupy the top rungs are the historically white universities that in the past were well resourced by the state and the dominant business community.
Committed academics tried hard during the apartheid days to bring the historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs) to keep up with their better-resourced brethren, but money always talked and still does.
With their scant resources, some of these HDIs still continue to do wonderful work and, with time and support, could have matched and bettered the richer siblings down the line.
South Africa’s “elite” universities, however, managed to soar in the post-apartheid era and are throwing big punches in the broader world. They have attracted good brains from the continent.
But now we are hellbent on destroying that standing. In the past 18 months, we have been waging war on our universities.
A well-intentioned assault on symbols that represent the country’s oppressive past morphed into a dangerously myopic attack on all things perceived as Western and European.
Students who should know that knowledge is something that humanity has collectively accumulated through millenniums want to reject certain works because of that which they consider culturally and intellectually foreign.
Now you have a movement that wants to decolonise the curriculum – as if there is a type of philosophy, a mathematics, an accounting and an engineering that belongs to a particular civilisation or culture.
As if there are parts of the earth’s geography, such as Africa, that cannot lay claim to the development of modern society’s vast body of knowledge.
This is an inferiority complex disguised as militancy.
The devastating blow that will land the South African university sector in critical care is the mindless campaign for free tertiary education.
Proponents of this campaign have taken an idealistic Freedom Charter promise that was turned into an ANC Polokwane conference resolution and turned it into an article of faith.
With the myriad demands placed on it, the South African economy operating at the current levels of growth cannot afford to put every university student through four years of free education.
Even if it were to recover to growth rates of the pre-2008 meltdown, we would still not be in a position to do so.
Already, last year’s fee-hike freeze and the insourcing of services are beginning to compromise the health of faculties.
A second year of no fee hikes or an inadequate increase will further erode the quality of educational outputs. From there it will become more and more difficult to arrest the decline.
Let us dispel all notions that there is a chest of gold in Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s boot or tons of lucre in corporate South Africa’s secret vaults.
South Africa is not wealthy and difficult compromises have to be made about how we spend our money.
The heads of the universities of Limpopo and Venda warned this week that this headlong rush into offering free tertiary education would also further encourage dependence on government, with the consequent loss of academic freedom and operational freedom.
We all know how that story turned out on the rest of our continent, where iconic universities were laid to waste by dictatorial governments who feared the free-thinking space that universities offered.
Before South Africa gets bullied by the student movement, it should frame the conversation by asking the Fallists what they are offering society in return for all these things they want.
Their answer should begin with them demonstrating a love of knowledge – something that has been lacking in these 18 months of burning libraries, destroying laboratories and boycotting classes at the drop of a fedora – and an ambition to make South Africa great and cutting edge.