Camp conco us ctions

The whole in­sti­tu­tional ter­rain has shifted, per­haps for­ever, from one cen­tred on aca­demic ex­cel­lence to in­sti­tu­tional ac­cess

Finweek English Edition - - Cover -

for South Africa’s ter­tiary land­scape. Just as the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment is rid­ing roughshod for greater ac­cess by his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents to re­struc­tured uni­ver­si­ties an “aca­demic melt­down” is rolling with un­prece­dented size and speed. Nor­mally, that’s the last way any­one would de­scribe the ob­ject of the process of amal­ga­mat­ing the ter­tiary ter­rain that got un­der way in 2004. But th­ese days? To speak of the trans­for­ma­tion of higher ed­u­ca­tion as lurch­ing for­ward would be – well, a char­i­ta­ble un­der­state­ment – when the dropout rate among first-year stu­dents is cost­ing SA’s Trea­sury a whop­ping R4,5bn/year in grants and sub­si­dies to in­sti­tu­tions without an ad­e­quate re­turn on that in­vest­ment, ac­cord­ing to lat­est Hu­man Sci­ence Re­search Coun­cil fig­ures.

“It’s a sys­tem de­signed to push the ac­cess line at the ex­pense of the qual­ity line and, ul­ti­mately, over­all per­for­mance,” ed­u­ca­tion aca­demic Jonathan Jansen says.

That’s not hy­per­bolic repar­tee. Bu­reau­crats in SA’s Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment may have pre­ferred to couch the prob­lem in eu­phemistic catch phrases such as “a cri­sis of nor­mal­i­sa­tion” and “trans­for­ma­tion pains”. How­ever, crit­ics like Jansen have rightly out­done them­selves in com­ing up with syn­onyms for chaos and ter­mi­nal de­cline.

“It’s what I call a ‘sta­ble cri­sis’ – where one prob­lem or emer­gency af­ter an­other feeds off pre­vi­ous ones and so cre­ates new ones in a never-end­ing cy­cle – all the while get­ting big­ger with each pass­ing prob­lem,” Jansen says.

Cer­tainly, while Gov­ern­ment has re­newed its fi­nan­cial case for for­ti­fy­ing newly merged uni­ver­si­ties against ev­ery­thing from low and qual­i­ta­tively de­fi­cient re­search out­put to over­stretched re­sources and fi­nan­cial bar­ri­ers to en­try by black stu­dents by toss­ing an ad­di­tional R3bn (on top of R3,5bn ini­tially ear­marked for the re­struc­tur­ing strat­egy in 2000) at the merger mess, the scale of in­vest­ment is be­ing sys­tem­at­i­cally clawed back by a di­min­ish­ing re­turn as the cost of main­tain­ing the sys­tem’s fail­ure con­tin­ues to mount.

Cri­sis, in­deed. SA’s grad­u­a­tion rate of 15% is now among the world’s low­est, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial statis­tics. Of the 120 000 stu­dents en­rolled in higher ed­u­ca­tion in 2000, 36 000 dropped out in their first year of study. A fur­ther 24 000 (20%) flunked or aban­doned their sec­ond and third years. The dropout rate has been ris­ing ex­po­nen­tially since the 2004 re­struc­tur­ing strat­egy was in­au­gu­rated. Of the re­main­ing 60 000, only 22% on av­er­age grad­u­ated within the spec­i­fied three years it takes to com­plete a bach­e­lor’s de­gree.

It’s not just that the dropout rate – as high as 40% of first-year stu­dents – is a painfully

waste­ful and costly ven­ture that’s blasted gap­ing holes in the ed­u­ca­tion bud­get, says Jansen. The real test of Gov­ern­ment’s gam­ble on “a fun­da­men­tal re­struc­tur­ing of 36 ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions into 23 through new fund­ing for­mu­las, new gov­er­nance regimes, new in­sti­tu­tional com­bi­na­tions and new poli­cies on in­sti­tu­tional applications” is a shock­ing 30% of un­em­ploy­able grad­u­ates and dropouts (ac­cord­ing to lat­est of­fi­cial statis­tics).

To lend cre­dence to that as­ser­tion, a 2008 McGre­gor re­port es­ti­mated un­em­ploy­ment among grad­u­ates jumped from 6,6% in 1995 to 9,7% in 2005 as the qual­ity of grad­u­ate skills were steadily eroded and whit­tled down over the 10-year pe­riod. In round num­bers, that trans­lated to 36 000 job­less peo­ple with de­grees and 165 000 un­em­ployed hold­ers of diplo­mas and cer­tifi­cates in 2005.

Given the seis­mic shifts un­der way in em­ploy­ment dis­tri­bu­tion and the crit­i­cal deficit of high-level skills, that’s par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant. More re­cently, a grow­ing global ap­petite for skills has been taken as a sig­nal that uni­ver­si­ties aren’t pro­duc­ing nearly enough grad­u­ates with rel­e­vant qual­i­fi­ca­tions for the labour mar­ket.

Those rifts be­tween the sup­ply of and de­mand for skilled grad­u­ates are ap­par­ent from a 22 000 short­fall of top-flight fi­nan­cial skills, ac­cord­ing to lat­est SA In­sti­tute of Char­tered Ac­coun­tants statis­tics. A stark tes­ti­mony to a dis­sem­bling de­cline in the over­all pass rate (and qual­ity of CAs in par­tic­u­lar) is the sur­vey’s find­ing that in 2008, 1 806 stu­dents failed the qual­i­fy­ing exam com­pared with 2 096 passes. The high­est pass rates were cred­ited to pre­vi­ously ad­van­taged uni­ver­si­ties. The Uni­ver­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg topped the list (at 15,8%), fol­lowed by the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town (UCT) (14,8%) and the Uni­ver­sity of Pre­to­ria (11,9%). The fly on the wall was the over­all fail­ure rate of 76% last year.

If global es­ti­mates that ad­vances in knowl­edge pro­duc­tion ac­count for an av­er­age onethird of the in­creases in gross do­mes­tic prod­uct of a coun­try are ac­cu­rate, busi­nesses are get­ting clob­bered.

Fresh ev­i­dence from a Grant Thorn­ton an­nual sur­vey of se­nior ex­ec­u­tives re­vealed that 41% of South African pri­vately held com­pa­nies be­lieve the avail­abil­ity of a skilled work­force is still the big­gest con­straint to busi­ness growth. “This is the third con­sec­u­tive year that work­force is­sues have been cited as the great­est im­ped­i­ment to growth in SA,” says Leonard Brehm, na­tional chair­man of Grant Thorn­ton.

In the daily grind of busi­ness, num­bers like those are a real im­ped­i­ment. “We’re find­ing in­creas­ingly that stu­dents com­ing out of dis­ad­van­taged and merged uni­ver­si­ties aren’t pre­pared for the world of work,” ob­serves Fel­leng Magoloa, hu­man re­sources di­rec­tor at Simba Snacks & Bev­er­ages.

Magoloa’s de­cid­edly glum sen­ti­ment, shared by most cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives and hu­man re­sources man­agers in­ter­viewed in a Fin­week sur­vey this week, be­lies a deeper truth: the en­tire in­sti­tu­tional ter­rain has shifted – per­haps for­ever– from one cen­tred on aca­demic ex­cel­lence to in­sti­tu­tional ac­cess.

To be sure, black stu­dent num­bers have been ris­ing at a blis­ter­ing clip in an ex­pand­ing sys­tem seen as a way to widen ac­cess to postschool ed­u­ca­tion, raise stu­dent num­bers, plug the skills gap and im­prove the di­ver­sity of ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion. Since SA’s eve of democ­racy, to­tal en­rol­ment in higher learn­ing in­sti­tu­tions was around 17%. Par­tic­i­pa­tion rates were highly skewed by race: ap­prox­i­mately 9% for Africans, 13% for coloureds, 40% for In­di­ans and 70% for whites.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Stu­dent Fi­nan­cial Aid Scheme, the statu­tory body re­spon­si­ble for allocating stu­dent grants, the ra­tio of black and white en­rol­ment has since been vir­tu­ally in­verted. The scheme noted in a re­cent sub­mis­sion to Par­lia­ment that 91% of those stu­dents that ben­e­fit from the grants were black. The plan is to en­rol 1m fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion stu­dents by 2014, says Penny Vin­jevold, a deputy di­rec­tor at the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment.

But while in­creases in en­rol­ment fig­ures (al­ready soar­ing to the 20% mark this year) are re­cast­ing the racial pro­file of uni­ver­si­ties, 70% of stu­dents who flunk or leave come from low-in­come (black) fam­i­lies, a 2007 McGre­gor re­port re­vealed.

Such num­bers are caus­ing a mi­nor re­volt among a small but grow­ing co­terie of aca­demics in top per­form­ing in­sti­tu­tions. Some ed­u­ca­tion pun­dits now worry the costs of re­struc­tur­ing ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion – on top of ev­ery­thing else – will gen­er­ate pres­sure at the grass­roots to speed up the in­te­gra­tion of merged in­sti­tu­tions, with all the dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects of dis­jointed fi­nan­cial al­lo­ca­tions on the qual­ity of out­put.

For one thing, the ground-level con­fu­sion is al­ready fu­elling anx­i­eties about the “per­verse” fund­ing pri­or­i­ties of the Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment. Top re­search in­sti­tu­tions, such as UCT and Stel­len­bosch – old school elites un­touched by merg­ers and in­cor­po­ra­tions – are ap­par­ently roiled about be­ing “pe­nalised for over-per­form­ing” by a Gov­ern­ment sub­sidy scheme crafted to help for­mer tech­nikons and his­tor­i­cally black in­sti­tu­tions catch up on re­search and teach­ing ca­pac­ity, the Fin­week

sur­vey found.

As things stand, all uni­ver­si­ties re­ceive an an­nual sub­sidy based on their re­search out­puts: the num­ber of jour­nal pub­li­ca­tions and the num­ber of Mas­ters and PhD grad­u­ates. How­ever, the sting in the tail is that there’s “no qual­i­ta­tive mea­sure” to de­ter­mine whether sub­sidy al­lo­ca­tions to uni­ver­si­ties are com­men­su­rate with out­put, says Christo­pher Vaughan, deputy dean of re­search at UCT’s fac­ulty of sciences.

Mean­while, as the rev­enues of com­pre­hen­sive uni­ver­si­ties have soared, Vaughan ar­gues that stel­lar per­form­ers such as UCT, Stel­len­bosch and Pre­to­ria have seen their bud­gets trail to a trickle as a re­sult of Gov­ern­ment’s at­tempt to fi­nance its re­struc­tur­ing and trans­for­ma­tion ef­forts.

For ex­am­ple, UCT ex­pe­ri­enced a dip in re­search out­puts from 2 848 in 2001 to 2 496 in 2003 through­out its fac­ul­ties, an in­ter­nal au­dit of the uni­ver­sity’s fi­nan­cial and aca­demic per­for­mance showed. The al­lo­ca­tion as a pro­por­tion of the quan­tum of qual­ity out­put has since dwin­dled even fur­ther.

The same can’t be said, re­gret­tably, for merged in­sti­tu­tions. There was an un­spo­ken as­sump­tion among those in­ter­viewed by Fin­week for the sur­vey that merged uni­ver­si­ties were more con­cerned with get­ting the num­bers out of the sys­tem than qual­ity and were will­ing to earn a lower-calo­rie through­put.

Even more stag­ger­ing is the wild dis­crep­ancy in the earn­ings of vice-chan­cel­lors. In Novem­ber last year a salary re­view by the Mail & Guardian found that sus­pended vice-chan­cel­lor Aaron Ndlovu, of Man­go­suthu Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy (in­ci­den­tally, one of the worst per­form­ers in Fin­week’s sur­vey) topped the pile at R3,68m in 2007 for run­ning a cam­pus with just 9 828 stu­dents.

The pack­ages of heads and State al­lo­ca­tions to rev­enue of four of SA’s big­gest re­search-pro­duc­ing uni­ver­si­ties for 2007 – UCT, Stel­len­bosch, Pre­to­ria and Wits – were, by con­trast, rel­a­tively low. For ex­am­ple, the vice-chan­cel­lor of UCT – an ex­cel­lent over­all per­former, ac­cord­ing to our sur­vey – earned R1,55m for head­ing a fi­nan­cially sta­ble cam­pus with 21 188 stu­dents.

Add to the mix the fact that the pres­sure is on to pum­mel more un­pre­pared black aca­demics through the sys­tem, as more than 50% of the most highly qual­i­fied and pro­duc­tive re­searchers pre­pare to re­tire within the next decade, and the po­ten­tial scale of the cri­sis starts to hit home.

So far, Gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tions have fo­cused on what Jansen calls a “pro­gres­sive dumb­ing down” of the qual­ity of aca­demic out­put by “award­ing pro­fes­sor­ships to grad­u­ates without any record of schol­ar­ship, without a track record in re­search and without any cred­i­bil­ity in the com­pet­i­tive world of re­search jour­nals, re­search cer­tifi­cates and re­search pro­grammes”.

He at­tributes that acidic trend to a “grow­ing mal­prac­tice” in (es­pe­cially tech­nikons) and some uni­ver­si­ties to cre­ate a new class of (mainly) black pro­fes­sors in re­sponse to “an un­seemly haste to pro­pel those in­sti­tu­tions overnight into uni­ver­sity sta­tus – such as the so-called uni­ver­si­ties of tech­nol­ogy – on the back of pro­fes­so­rial ap­point­ments made, in the main, to young black aca­demics”.

The un­in­tended con­se­quence is that the post2004 in­sti­tu­tional land­scape has been a fall­out in a strug­gle to rede­fine hege­monic iden­ti­ties. “The re­sult is that not only is there a hi­er­ar­chi­cal bat­tle for con­trol (be­tween black and white aca­demics) but th­ese bat­tles are also di­vided along cul­tural (and fi­nan­cial) dif­fer­ences they in­her­ited,” says Jansen.

Such fears are no longer idle talk. If the merg­ers have caused wide­spread anx­i­ety, pes­simism is al­ready spilling over into open re­volt against the newly merged in­sti­tu­tions. Last month two in­sti­tu­tions – Tsh­wane Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nol­ogy and North West Uni­ver­sity – were hit hard by in­ter­nal squab­bles over prob­lems re­lated to merg­ers, in­equal­ity be­tween black and white aca­demics and in­fra­struc­ture, and ques­tions sur­round­ing racial eq­uity.

A re­port tabled by a min­is­te­rial task team into the af­fairs of North West con­cluded the clo­sure of the Mafikeng cam­puses on at least three oc­ca­sions last year was due to a power strug­gle over re­sources and cul­tural dif­fer­ences be­tween the Potchef­stroom and Vaal cam­puses and Mafikeng cam­pus.

In their as­sess­ment of the Mafikeng cam­pus, in­ves­ti­ga­tors no­ticed it had the low­est

Throw­ing money at the prob­lem. Naledi Pan­dor

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