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Putting the bite on Africa

Karen Mac Gregor meets the dentist who is chair of South Africa's first National Education Commission

Jairam Reddy trod the political tightrope that has become the lot of vice chancellors at progressive South African universities for four years. Much of his time was spent brokering truces between demonstrating students, anxious academics and his own executive at the University of Durban-Westville.

Now the quietly spoken former dentist holds the future of the country's crucial, R2 billion (Pounds 318 million) a year higher education sector in his hands. He will need all the diplomatic skills he learned while steering his university -- built for Asians under apartheid -- into the new South Africa.

This week Professor Reddy began chairing the first National Commission on Higher Education, charged with transforming the country's 21 universities and 15 technikons which now teach nearly half a million students a year. They are the jewel in the crown of South African education, but in the past five years many -- and particularly historically black and liberal universities -- have been buffeted by ongoing crises of funding and student disruption.

Professor Reddy, who left the University of Durban-Westville last month, played a part in the struggle against apartheid. However, he confesses: "I won't miss toyi-toying students and staff."

His new task will be equally challenging. "The work of the commission will be crucial to reshaping the sector so that it becomes better able to address the educational, cultural and developmental needs of South Africa in the very critical post-apartheid years," he says.

Among the issues he has identified as urgent are student and university funding, developing centres of research excellence, strengthening science, shifting much research undertaken by parastatal organisations to universities and creating a new development model for universities.

The Pretoria-based commission will have a year to investigate the entire sector and draft specific proposals. Its chief executive is ministerial adviser Teboja Moja, and its 11 members include representatives of universities, technikons and colleges, business, unions, and research, student and staff organisations.

Professor Reddy's appointment was made by education minister Sibusiso Bengu, after wide consultation. The Durban-born professor studied in Britain and the United States in the 1960s and 1970s -- there were no places for black dental students in South Africa at the time. He obtained a bachelor's degree in dentistry at the University of Birmingham: "Those five years were an incredible experience for me," he says.

After working as a dentist in Durban for three years he travelled to America, where he obtained a masters in biology at the University of Manitoba, followed by various fellowships. He held academic positions at the universities of London, Manitoba, Temple and Washington before returning to South Africa.

In 1988, Professor Reddy obtained a doctorate at the University of the Western Cape, where he was dean of dentistry before moving to the same position at the University of Durban-Westville. He became the institution's first black vice chancellor in July 1990.

"My life was never carefully thought out. Everything happened by contingency and circumstances," Professor Reddy says. "But the years I spent at the University of the Western Cape were very important to me. I learned a great deal about apartheid, and resistance to it, and about what universities were going through. There have been a lot of good times, and some bad times.

"I think that the post-apartheid era opened up spaces that progressive constituencies are still trying to come to terms with. The change often led to conflict, as different groups tried to seize the opportunity to become dominating forces in universities. That is a thread going through many universities. It will be three to four years before they stabilise.

"We will try to achieve transformation with stability, and governance with democracy and participation but also with strong discipline. Student protests and staff strikes must end. It is only in a stable climate that universities will be able to develop and attract good academics. Much will also depend on the quality of leadership, which is not the best at the moment."

The commission will tackle every aspect of higher education. Task forces will be set up to deal with specific issues, and each will have a research backup team comprising experts from South Africa and abroad.

To begin with it will operate alongside the government's higher education crisis committee, headed by senior African National Congress executive Cheryl Corolus. The commission hopes this will deal with flash points that are certain to develop when universities reopen next month and poor students once again begin the battle for bursaries and loans.

One of the commission's priorities will be to investigate setting up a national student loan scheme. This issue will top the agenda at a major funding conference to be at the end of January.

It is estimated that as much as R500 million a year will be needed to fund student loans -- a quarter of the total subsidy payment to higher education and it would be several years before the Government began to recycle the money through student repayments, possibly using a system of graduate tax.

Another priority, Professor Reddy says, will be university funding. "My mind is wide open, but the issue of redress will be at the top of the list, and efficiency and accountability will go hand in hand with that."

Funding will be equalised, and will be used by the Government as an incentive for universities to produce the kinds of students the country needs. Since a new funding model and student loan scheme will not be in place for the 1995 academic year, he warns, universities can expect one more year of crisis management.

"We must look increasingly at distance education, which is able to deliver cost-effective higher education, especially in the humanities. At the moment universities are skewed towards the humanities: in future the bias should be towards science. There has been an almost reckless expansion in student numbers, which has to be curtailed since South Africa cannot afford it."

Professor Reddy has strong ideas on research. First, he says, too much research is being conducted in-house by parastatal research councils. "We must get away from that and provide universities with more research money."

Second, ways must be found of ensuring that research is relevant to the country. "Blue-sky research will not be neglected, especially that being undertaken by outstanding people. But South Africa is not a rich country, and should concentrate on research relevant to development."

Third, he says, South Africa must support existing centres of excellence and create new ones that include more black academics. "Research at historically black universities cannot be developed overnight. The way forward will be to identify strong areas and build on them."

The commission will cast far and wide for new directions to follow -- looking particularly hard at successful models in other developing countries. And, of course, higher education will be expected to gear itself towards supporting the government's ambitious reconstruction and development programme.

"There are key development issues which universities should address. That is the paradigm in which we should locate the work of the commission. India, South- East Asia and Australia face similar problems to ours, but there has been little communication between us. We must look for far more south-south interaction."

The transformation Professor Reddy began at one university four years ago will go national this week. Aspects of its work are bound to be controversial and the battles universities will wage will often be fierce. But it is work which the former Durban dentist is looking forward to getting his teeth into.

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