HE nation was shocked by a videotape made by four University of the Free State students last year, which showed them feeding elderly members of the institution's staff food contaminated by urine.

HE nation was shocked by a videotape made by four University of the Free State students last year, which showed them feeding elderly members of the institution's staff food contaminated by urine.

The students were white and the staff members were black. It was an act of undignifying obscenity.

The official response to the episode set us off on the wrong path by defining it as an act of racism.

There was a racist overlay and it certainly happened in a context where black people were historically treated as if they were animals. It was, though, an act of common assault.

Instead of hauling the students before a court to be tried under common law, former education minister Naledi Pandor appointed a committee with a particularly long name: ministerial committee on transformation and Social Cohesion and the elimination of discrimination in public higher education.

The committee recently released its report, the Soudien Report, chaired by the University of Cape Town's Professor Crain Soudien.

Unfair discrimination on the grounds of appearance, gender or other social characteristics is unconstitutional, wrong and injurious to the welfare of individuals.

Discriminatory practices stifle rather than elevate the talent of individuals and is, therefore, a very bad thing. It is particularly shocking if it were to occur at universities, which are there specifically to elevate talent by way of teaching and research about our place in the universe.

However misguided the origins of the report, I thought it would cast some light on the incidence of racial, gender and other forms of discrimination. I am sorry to report that it does not. This is why: the first task of an investigation of this sort is to get a grip on the scale of the problem. By gathering the facts we would be able to assess whether this is a small or large problem.

This was not done. Large-scale quantitative research is not rocket science. It is the staple of the Humna Sciences Research Council. Neither does it have to be expensive.

The sample consists of the university's justice and disciplinary offices and there are as many of these as there are universities.

Instead, the committee asked self-interested university executives to make submissions and then visited them to probe deeper.

This rather imperfect method yielded interesting anthropologies that simply restated the problem.

A further sadness is the poverty of analytical rigour and lack of philosophical sophistication. They fail to define what it is meant by racism. They call it an "ideological phenomenon", which is sociology for not knowing what it is they are talking about, an intellectual laziness.

Is racism a belief? Yes, they say. Is racism a behaviour? Yebo. Is racism a process? Certainly. Is racism a culture? Definitely. Is racism the result of an unintended chain of reactions? Of course.

Robert Miles, whom the committee so approvingly quotes, calls the concept "inflated", being everything and nothing.

The absence of fact combined with poverty of the intellect conspire to cast universities as pathologically racist, a travesty of the truth. I am convinced that most student and staff interactions are free of racism, pretty normal and exciting and interesting journeys of mutual discovery.

When there are problems of discrimination then universities must have the machinery to receive, research and adjudicate complaints and punish offenders if necessary. To cultivate a conducive environment for civil and dignified behaviours universities should build an appropriate culture.

Why did the committee not make the one recommendation that mattered most and would cost little, which is for universities to strengthen their administrative justice machinery to deal properly with real and verifiable episodes of racial and gender discrimination?

lJames is an MP and Democratic Alliance spokesperson on higher education and training.