Don’t seek money for research at the cost of levelling the educational playing field
Universities should fund research through money they raise themselves
● 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.
Wits students protest against tuition fees in 2015.