Final Word

Higher education in tatters in the arms a Greek god?


South Africa’s system of higher, or tertiary, education seems to be in ‘tatters’, on the verge of a true ‘catastrophe’, while those who should give leadership seem to be in the arms of the Greek god ‘Morpheus’.

As the time to complete a full and proper academic year with ‘examinations’ taking place is fast running out, this crucial sector to a developing society looks in really bad shape. Indeed, it seems to be in ‘tatters’, which could leave the next generation of students in literal tatters (in the original sense of the word) if it leaves them unprepared for the modern job market.

‘Tatters’, which means damaged beyond repair, arrived in late Middle English in the late 14th century from the Old Norse word tǫturr for rag as in damaged and shredded clothes.

Catastrophic results

If institutions like universities cannot complete their 2016 academic year, some of the results will be ‘catastrophic’ for large groups of people as well as for the economy for some years to come. Not only will the final year student crop of 2016 not be able to start working and repay their study debt, but there will not be room at the institutions to accommodate this year’s crop of school-leavers.

The economy in turn will miss out on the injection of a year’s supply of newly qualified employees.

This alone seems to fit in neatly with the definition of ‘catastrophe’ as a disastrous result, misfortune, mishap or failure. The word entered the English vocabulary of the 16th century to describe “the conclusion or final event of a dramatic work, especially of a tragedy”.

It originally comes from the Greek word katastrophē, meaning ‘overturning or sudden turn’ composed from kata- (down) + strophē (turning) and strephein (to turn).

No great shakes

As the drama surrounding academic year 2016 is fast closing in on a catastrophic final act, one can only come to the conclusion that the leadership with regard to higher education and those who should have been besieged with this problem appears to be in ‘no great shakes’.

The origin of the idiom ‘no great shakes’, when applied to people, indicating among other things that their performance is not up to standard, is not certain beyond all doubt.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that this expression alludes to the shaking of the dice in gambling. Another guess is that it comes from the slang use of ‘shake’ for bragging, suggesting that someone who is ‘no great shakes’ has nothing to brag about.

Be that as it may, the ‘last throw of the dice’ in this year’s higher education drama belonged to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and President Jacob Zuma, with the same ‘numbers’ as last year, and with the most recent offering a repeat of last year’s – some kind of fees freeze plus yet another ‘task team’ instead of a proper plan and/or long-term vision for education.

In the arms of Morpheus

Considering that the crisis around university fees has been building up for more than a year, one can only assume that, metaphorically speaking, the top leadership ‘went into the arms of Morpheus’.

Morpheus is the god of dreams in Greek mythology, whose name literally means ‘the maker of shapes’. His name comes from the Greek word morphe (form or shape), giving form to our dreams.

It is also from there that we get ‘morphe’, the sleep-inducing drug and the word ‘metamorphosis’, meaning a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one. This is indeed wat seems to be happening to higher education, but as often happen in dreams, it is taking on the form of a monster.

Final word

It is increasingly looking as if, against the will of the majority of students, they will be missing their examinations this year. And it might be time for the collective leadership in the country, including student leaders, to subject themselves to an examination in the original sense of the word: “ … a test of one’s conscience rather than a test of one’s knowledge”.

by Piet Coetzer

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