Upheaval at South Africa’s universities is an opportunity to remake academia

University students are protesting various issues related to transformation on campuses across South Africa. Reuters/Mike Hutchings

The current wave of protest in South African universities shows up just how unprepared academia is to reflect on itself.

Yet, academia is uniquely qualified to do just that – solving the wicked problem is what we are here for.

Too often, demands for change have stalled when they run up against rigid structure – think of post-apartheid change in South Africa or decolonisation across Africa. A strictly top-down bureaucratic organisation is very hard to change. Democratisation of South Africa, 21 years on, has not empowered the ordinary person to take on corrupt officialdom or poor service delivery.

Could an agile university offer a lesson to other parts of society? Consider the Arab Spring, where anger in the streets ran up against a police state mindset. Once president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, the attitude on the street was “job done”. Well, no. What ultimately happened was that one military dictator was replaced by another.

This illustrates that protest is not enough. Restructuring decision-making is what is really needed.

A university encapsulates the problem neatly. It is full of young people with energy and the cognitive tools to demand rapid change who are running up against a rigid, seemingly immovable structure.

There is enormous potential for long term and genuine change if universities change their approach to dissent.

When rigidity relaxes

Here are examples of what is possible when rigid institutional structures are relaxed and employees – in a university’s case, this would apply to both academics and students – are taken seriously.

  • Toyota introduced Stop the Line manufacturing, which allowed any worker to hit a button and stop the production line to fix a problem.

  • Google employees have the option to spend 20% of their time to pursue their own projects.

  • Software development used to follow a rigid step-by-step process. More recently, approaches like agile software development have broken down this rigid approach in favour of more responsive methods that adapt to change rather than preventing it.

What all these things have in common is they create a self-learning organisation that is able to improve itself by rapid feedback. They also all have aspects of breaking the hierarchy.

A related concept is action learning: a student conceptualises a problem, reflects on it, works on a solution and repeats the cycle. There are variations on this basic methodology but the core idea is a feedback cycle. This approach becomes really powerful allied to modern thinking about how knowledge is socially constructed.

Tensions simmering

How could all this apply to running a university?

The key thing is to incorporate feedback into decision making and to allow ideas to originate anywhere in the organisation. Rather than a top-down committee-based approach, an agile approach deals constructively with hard issues. Those that cannot be dealt with in the traditional way provide leverage for rapid institutional reform.

On my own campus, Rhodes University, there are deep tensions between the Black Students’ Movement (BSM) and conservative elements on campus. The BSM may well represent a minority position – albeit a vocal one. But the issues they articulate are real, even if many students and academics would rather have a quiet life and leave things be.

A group of about 50 Rhodes academics – I am among them – has organised themselves into the Alternative Transformation Forum. It tries to cut across institutional boundaries and includes membership across the spectrum from junior academics to heads of department. It has an open channel to both the vice-chancellor and the BSM. Yet this is not seen as an asset.

Our messages are not transmitted on campus-wide email lists because they are not an “official” structure, a feeble excuse for censorship. Meanwhile tensions grow and issues are sidestepped. The main committee room, the Council Chamber, has been occupied by the BSM. Meetings are held elsewhere and tensions continue to simmer.

Agility in the academy

How differently would an agile university handle this?

The BSM would be recognised as a group of students who really care about the future of the institution. Their issues could become a focal point for reflection on what a university really is and what it could become. South Africa is a highly unequal society, where the government has stalled at equalising privilege. This could be the start of an important conversation that could lead to a major breakthrough in stalled progress.

Young academics, with a fresh perspective, can see the roadblocks in a way those who grew up with the system cannot. Like Toyota workers, they are in a better position to see when to hit the big red button than the people at the top.

Instead of focusing on sticking points, standing on pettifogging interpretations of bureaucracy and criminalising protest, the university could look deep into itself for solutions to a wicked-hard educational crisis.

Eight in nine fee-free schools in South Africa are failing. Universities did not cause this crisis, but agile thinking could lead to a solution where traditional top-down thinking has failed.

My appeal to universities in general is to learn how to be agile organisations. They should be able to self-adapt, self-learn and do away with excessively hierarchical and bureaucracy-bound structures.

Universities, despite their many flaws, have one massive advantage over other rigidly structured organisations. Teaching, learning and knowlege creation is their mission. It is time they internalised those concepts.