Don’t seek money for re­search at the cost of lev­el­ling the ed­u­ca­tional play­ing field

Uni­ver­si­ties should fund re­search through money they raise them­selves

Sunday Times - - Opinion - By McGLORY SPECKMAN Pro­fes­sor Speckman is cam­pus rec­tor of the Queen­stown cam­pus of Wal­ter Sisulu Univer­sity. He writes in his per­sonal ca­pac­ity.

● The ar­ti­cle “Fund­ing re­search-in­ten­sive uni­ver­si­ties should be pri­ori­tised” in last week’s Sun­day Times can­not go un­chal­lenged, lest we for­get where we come from and where we in­tend to be.

Dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion should be self-fund­ing and not squeeze the last bit of life from in­sti­tu­tions that could be de­vel­op­ing both hu­man be­ings and in­fra­struc­ture with the lim­ited re­sources avail­able.

The vice-chan­cel­lors who wrote the ar­ti­cle [Adam Habib of Wits Univer­sity and Mamokgethi Phak­eng of the Univer­sity of Cape Town] are well aware of the his­tory of inequal­ity in this coun­try and the po­lit­i­cal, so­cial and eco­nomic role of ed­u­ca­tion in that. One won­ders why they opt for an ap­proach that is tan­ta­mount to an en­trench­ment of the su­pe­rior po­si­tions of his­tor­i­cally priv­i­leged in­sti­tu­tions.

It is one thing to mo­ti­vate for more fund­ing against the back­drop of a threat to scale down re­search and in­no­va­tion fund­ing by short-sighted politi­cians; it is quite an­other to halt at­tempts to level the play­ing field.

If be­ing re­search-in­ten­sive is as­so­ci­ated with priv­i­lege, sta­tus and global recog­ni­tion, we must ask why the his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged in­sti­tu­tions are not there. They have been pushed into that po­si­tion and the cul­ture that has re­sulted from it in the same way that town­ship folk were given no al­ter­na­tive.

The his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged in­sti­tu­tions, too, have am­bi­tions to be counted among the pres­ti­gious, and to en­joy global sta­tus. You need only pick up their vi­sion state­ments to see the dreams that never find ful­fil­ment.

They were es­tab­lished with a view to per­pet­u­at­ing the su­pe­rior/in­fe­rior race ide­ol­ogy. This was re­flected in their ar­chi­tec­ture, the amount of re­sources al­lo­cated, what they were al­lowed or not al­lowed to teach, and in those who were ap­pointed in lead­er­ship po­si­tions. Thanks to this, they found them­selves trapped in their sta­tus of per­pet­ual poverty and in­fe­ri­or­ity.

The at­ti­tude that fund­ing is a diver­sion of funds to poor in­sti­tu­tions is a con­dem­na­tion of these in­sti­tu­tions to a per­pet­ual un­der­dog sta­tus. It in fact says that they do not de­serve any re­sources to up­lift them from their cur­rent sta­tus. Is this what the au­thors think of town­ship folk as well? Are we say­ing that all must be left to go the apart heid des­tined way be­cause they are block­ing our chances of ac­cess to more priv­i­lege?

Who, if not black aca­demic lead­ers, can change the lot of his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged in­sti­tu­tions?

The ar­ti­cle men­tions that the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents in his­tor­i­cally priv­i­leged in­sti­tu­tions are black, as if that makes a dif­fer­ence to the plight of his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged in­sti­tu­tions.

They for­get that those who move from his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged back­grounds to these in­sti­tu­tions do so not be­cause they think they have grad­u­ated from town­ship con­di­tions and “bush col­leges”; they do so be­cause they are look­ing for al­ter­na­tives to the trap­pings of the apartheid aca­demic jails at their doorstep.

It is a pity that they are now be­ing used as ex­am­ples of how trans­formed these his­tor­i­cally priv­i­leged in­sti­tu­tions are.

The in­ten­tion of the govern­ment in cre­at­ing the largely un­work­able merged in­sti­tu­tions was to try to ad­dress the ques­tion of re­sources with a view to trans­form­ing these apartheid crea­tures, which some from priv­i­leged in­sti­tu­tions wanted to see closed down.

This worked in cases where the su­per-rich were paired with the poor, be­cause they sim­ply ab­sorbed the poor. It did not work where poor were matched with poor, for two rea­sons: the prox­im­ity to each other put pres­sure on lim­ited re­sources, and legacy in­sti­tu­tions had noth­ing but their in­sti­tu­tional cul­tures to hold onto. Clashes in this re­gard af­fect an idea that is oth­er­wise noble.

The vice-chan­cel­lors know that turn­ing around an in­sti­tu­tion re­quires re­sources. The ghetto men­tal­ity of stu­dents and work­ers will not change un­less there is sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in aes­thet­ics, hu­man re­source is­sues, pro­gramme of­fer­ings, and so on.

Priv­i­leged in­sti­tu­tions live off be­quests, do­na­tions, spon­sor­ships and re­search funds. They are able to gen­er­ate more funds through re­search and in­no­va­tion. The govern­ment sub­sidy plays a small role, while in his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged uni­ver­si­ties this is the main source of in­come.

Com­pound­ing mat­ters is that fees have to be kept low to ac­com­mo­date ac­cess for those not ac­com­mo­dated else­where. It is easy for the his­tor­i­cally priv­i­leged to poach the best­per­form­ing stu­dents and aca­demics. This con­tin­u­ous mi­gra­tion causes in­sta­bil­ity and robs in­sti­tu­tions’ turn­around ef­forts. It leaves them with all the chal­lenges of the past, which keep on re­pro­duc­ing them­selves.

My ex­pe­ri­ence is that if re­sources were freely avail­able, my in­sti­tu­tion would be fly­ing. Lack of re­sources makes non­sense of any good ideas.

In my sub­mis­sion to the He­her com­mis­sion on ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing, I sug­gested a stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of fees for all who are sup­ported through the Na­tional Stu­dent Fi­nan­cial Aid Scheme.

Where there is a short­fall in fees, in­sti­tu­tions that of­fer a Rolls-Royce qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion should sub­sidise from their own funds.

The govern­ment should de­cide, with ad­vice from in­sti­tu­tions, on a rea­son­able cost for each qual­i­fi­ca­tion and fund ac­cord­ingly across the board. In that way, all in­sti­tu­tions are put on the same level.

As it is the case with for­mer Model C schools, in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing should raise funds for ex­tras to en­hance the qual­ity of their of­fer­ings. This should ap­ply to re­search fund­ing as well. In this way, dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion will be fund­ing it­self.

The op­po­site will be an un­der­min­ing of the South African con­sti­tu­tion, which en­joins us to right the wrongs of the past.

Pic­ture: Ih­saan Haf­fe­jee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Im­ages

Wits stu­dents protest against tu­ition fees in 2015.

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