The univer­sity is not a factory

Univer­sity man­agers try to churn out as many prod­ucts as pos­si­ble at as low a qual­ity as they can get away with

Mail & Guardian - - Education - Seán Mfundza Muller

If you be­lieve the glossy ad­verts, puff pieces and award cer­e­monies, you might think that many South African uni­ver­si­ties are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly im­pres­sive by do­ing ground-break­ing re­search, climb­ing the in­ter­na­tional rank­ings and pro­duc­ing high-qual­ity grad­u­ates.

Un­for­tu­nately, the re­al­ity is rather dif­fer­ent and the in­sti­tu­tions’ bur­nish­ing of their own pub­lic im­age is a symp­tom of toxic dy­nam­ics that may com­pro­mise our higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem for decades to come.

Al­though the cri­sis has his­tor­i­cal roots, at the heart of the cur­rent rot­ten core is the fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive sys­tem ad­min­is­tered by the depart­ment of higher ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing. By award­ing fund­ing based on stu­dent through­put and the pro­duc­tion of re­search, the in­cen­tive sys­tem has in­jected a mon­e­tary stim­u­lant into an al­ready un­healthy sys­tem, fu­elling prob­lem­atic dy­nam­ics and cre­at­ing a swath of new prob­lems.

Whether they ad­mit it or not, be­sides bur­nish­ing the im­ages of their in­sti­tu­tions (or, in a few cases, their own), univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors — vice-chan­cel­lors, deputy vice-chan­cel­lors, deans and heads of de­part­ments — are pre­oc­cu­pied with max­imis­ing rev­enue, first and fore­most, from the state but also from any­where else they can get it. The pres­sure to do this is typ­i­cally passed straight down to in­di­vid­ual aca­demics.

The pri­mary pres­sure is on re­search be­cause the depart­ment al­lo­cates a fi­nan­cial in­cen­tive for ev­ery “ac­cred­ited” pub­li­ca­tion. It has reached a point where some fac­ul­ties send out weekly “re­search up­dates”, which at­tempt to quan­tify whether “tar­gets” will be met.

Pres­sure is also ex­erted on the teach­ing side. If aca­demics do not pass “enough” stu­dents to meet money-driven tar­gets, re­gard­less of the rea­sons, they are likely to be hauled into an un­com­fort­able meet­ing with some layer of man­age­ment. They will be put un­der pres­sure to in­crease marks or create ad­di­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents to get their de­grees.

Some­times this is framed as be­ing about the stu­dents’ well­be­ing but that is al­most al­ways a lie. A re­cent, shock­ing de­vel­op­ment in one in­sti­tu­tion is the in­tro­duc­tion of stu­dent through­put rates in aca­demics’ per­for­mance con­tracts, at­tempt­ing to use for­mal puni­tive mea­sures to force aca­demics to pass stu­dents, re­gard­less of their cal­i­bre and per­for­mance.

With these ap­proaches, the univer­sity be­comes a factory, whose man­agers try to churn out as many prod­ucts as pos­si­ble at as low a qual­ity as they can get away with.

In a coun­try with a more ca­pa­ble cadre of aca­demics, this would al­ready have led to sub­stan­tial re­sis­tance, if not an out­right re­volt. But the South African sys­tem is not, and never has been, high qual­ity. It is of­ten for­got­ten that apartheid and colo­nial­ism bred a deep in­tel­lec­tual medi­ocrity. Very lit­tle has been done to pre­vent that medi­ocrity re­pro­duc­ing it­self in the post-apartheid era.

And the in­tro­duc­tion of crude in­cen­tives cou­pled with medi­ocrity means that ef­fort is di­rected at the most pa­thetic ac­tiv­i­ties — pro­duc­ing ar­ti­cles for the low­est-qual­ity “ac­cred­ited” aca­demic jour­nals and low­er­ing stan­dards in or­der to push through stu­dents at the rate de­manded by ad­min­is­tra­tors.

Those who play this game best then get pro­moted and pass on their ve­nal medi­ocrity to new gen­er­a­tions of grad­u­ates and aca­demics.

What about univer­sity ad­min­is­tra­tors? In many cases, the hum­ble ad­min­is­tra­tors who un­der­stand that their role is to serve aca­demics, stu­dents and so­ci­ety at large are a rar­ity; more com­mon are the ad­min­is­tra­tors hoard­ing re­sources and power, or the nar­cis­sists, who see them­selves as visionaries lead­ing a flock.

It is in­evitable that these char­ac­ter­is­tics be­come in­creas­ingly preva­lent in a sys­tem that re­wards those who treat the univer­sity like a factory, seek­ing to pro­duce out­put to max­imise profit, where aca­demics are seen as sub­servient pro­duc­tion-line work­ers.

It is an en­vi­ron­ment in which aca­demics them­selves say “we can­not fight the univer­sity”, seem­ingly un­aware that, not only be­cause of the na­ture of the univer­sity but also be­cause of pol­icy and the law, they are the univer­sity.

The au­to­cratic cul­ture in which, for ex­am­ple, se­nior man­age­ment sum­mar­ily de­cides that a 10% in­crease in “out­put” is re­quired and sends this to aca­demics as dik­tat is most eas­ily im­ple­mented at for­merly Afrikaanss­peak­ing uni­ver­si­ties. Obe­di­ence and sub­servience were, af­ter all, among the most im­por­tant char­ac­ter­is­tics of apartheid. And, in­deed, in some in­stances when aca­demics raise con­cerns about the vi­o­la­tion of aca­demic free­dom, the re­ac­tion sug­gests that many in­di­vid­u­als in the sys­tem are un­aware that a Con­sti­tu­tion was pro­mul­gated in 1996.

It is also strik­ing that some new gen­er­a­tions of univer­sity man­agers from pre­vi­ously dis­ad­van­taged groups have quickly ac­com­mo­dated them­selves with apartheid-style bu­reau­cra­cies; they have dis­cov­ered that be­ing on the re­ceiv­ing end of “ja baas, nee baas” is much eas­ier than the messi­ness of sub­stan­tive con­sul­ta­tion and deal­ing with crit­i­cal in­tel­lec­tual en­gage­ment.

Al­though the de­mo­graphic of stu­dents and staff at many in­sti­tu­tions has changed dra­mat­i­cally for the bet­ter, prob­lem­atic in­sti­tu­tional cul­tures have mor­phed into new forms. This is why crit­ics who rely heavily on race or gen­der as a ba­sis for criticising some of our in­sti­tu­tions tend to find them­selves flail­ing aim­lessly, ab­surdly, un­able to pin down the prob­lem. Race and gen­der re­main im­por­tant but are now sub­merged in much more com­plex in­sti­tu­tional dy­nam­ics.

Adding to the com­plex­ity is that, when some in­ex­cus­able be­hav­iours are ex­posed, they are quickly repack­aged. Ad­min­is­tra­tors who are chal­lenged about their in­sis­tence on an 85% pass rate to max­imise rev­enue will sud­denly dis­cover the im­por­tance of higher ed­u­ca­tion for poor black stu­dents. “We can­not fail poor black stu­dents,” they ar­gue, “be­cause it will hurt their eco­nomic prospects and fam­i­lies.”

Iron­i­cally, in some in­sti­tu­tions this has led to an oth­er­wise per­plex­ing al­liance be­tween ed­u­ca­tion­ists and cor­po­ra­tis­ers: Well-mean­ing ed­u­ca­tion­ists com­plain about aca­demics hav­ing a “deficit model” of stu­dents and the cor­po­ra­tis­ers use this to brow­beat staff into pass­ing stu­dents — some of whom should prob­a­bly never have been ad­mit­ted in the first place — just to get rev­enue.

So each year tens of thou­sands of stu­dents are pumped out of uni­ver­si­ties with de­grees so that bureau­crats can tick off their per­for­mance tar­gets and claim rev­enue from the state.

Who will those stu­dents blame when the dreams they were sold col­lapse around them? Who will the coun­try blame when the ad­di­tional tens of bil­lions be­ing pumped into “free higher ed­u­ca­tion” do not yield the ex­pected re­turns?

A reader not fa­mil­iar with our uni­ver­si­ties might won­der how this rot has been al­lowed to con­tinue with­out greater ex­po­sure. But it should not be a sur­prise that in an anti-in­tel­lec­tual, un­prin­ci­pled en­vi­ron­ment, only a hand­ful of aca­demics have the courage — or in ad­min­is­tra­tors’ eyes, the temer­ity — to speak out about these dy­nam­ics.

Per­haps the most pub­licly out­spo­ken has been Pro­fes­sor No­ma­langa Mkhize, now at Nel­son Man­dela Metropoli­tan Univer­sity and pre­vi­ously at Rhodes Univer­sity. A small num­ber of oth­ers have writ­ten aca­demic pa­pers and the oc­ca­sional opin­ion piece on the dis­tort­ing ef­fect of pub­li­ca­tion in­cen­tives, the scale of pub­li­ca­tion in preda­tory jour­nals, the “cor­po­rati­sa­tion” of the univer­sity and so forth.

The depart­ment of higher ed­u­ca­tion clearly needs to be placed un­der pres­sure to ad­dress the broader harm caused by the gov­ern­ment’s in­cen­tive sys­tem, which in­duces rent-seek­ing be­hav­iour by in­sti­tu­tions and their man­agers, and thereby dis­torts the be­hav­iour of in­di­vid­ual aca­demics.

To date, the depart­ment has merely fid­dled with the sys­tem, fail­ing to ad­dress its main fail­ings. Fur­ther­more, there are cur­rently few con­se­quences for aca­demics and ad­min­is­tra­tors who play the sys­tem. For in­stance, there are many aca­demics who ob­tained ap­point­ments and pro­mo­tions, even up to the rank of full pro­fes­sor, based on pub­li­ca­tions in preda­tory and grossly lowqual­ity jour­nals.

A re­cent study by An­drew Kerr and Phillip de Jager of South African aca­demic eco­nom­ics pub­li­ca­tions found that se­nior aca­demics have, on aver­age, more pub­li­ca­tions in preda­tory jour­nals than ju­nior ones. Pub­lish­ing in such jour­nals is usu­ally a sign of a lack of ethics or gross in­com­pe­tence. But I am un­aware of a sin­gle case in which a pro­mo­tion or ap­point­ment has been re­voked, mean­ing that there are dozens, pos­si­bly hun­dreds, of in­com­pe­tent and un­eth­i­cal aca­demics oc­cu­py­ing se­nior posts in our uni­ver­si­ties.

On the con­trary, some aca­demics have had the au­dac­ity to ar­gue that the re­vo­ca­tion of the ac­cred­i­ta­tion of jour­nals dis­cov­ered to be preda­tory could prej­u­dice them and be il­le­gal. But, if some­thing is not done soon about this state of af­fairs, the dam­age done could be ir­re­versible for gen­er­a­tions to come, the best-case sce­nario be­ing one in which South African uni­ver­si­ties re­main stag­nant in­tel­lec­tual back­wa­ters.

The prob­lem is not only the lack of pub­lic re­sis­tance but also a wide­spread fail­ure to con­front these poi­sonous cul­tures within the key fo­rums of the uni­ver­si­ties them­selves. No­tably, com­pe­tent se­nior aca­demics of­ten opt out of univer­sity bu­reau­cra­cies or sim­ply limit their en­gage­ment to ad­vanc­ing their own direct in­ter­ests. Pro­vided they have a com­fort­able, well-re­sourced space within which to op­er­ate, these in­di­vid­u­als sim­ply avoid the te­dious de­part­men­tal and fac­ulty board meet­ings at which key ad­min­is­tra­tive de­ci­sions are taken.

Many “de­ci­sions” in aca­demic fo­rums are there­fore rub­ber-stamped by docile or syco­phan­tic aca­demics, or steam­rollered through in the face of any prin­ci­pled op­po­si­tion.

The no­tion of “col­lec­tive ac­count­abil­ity” has be­come a bad joke in South Africa since it was abused by former pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma and his cronies to shift blame for state cap­ture on to oth­ers in the ANC and broader so­ci­ety.

Yet, the prin­ci­ples and in­sti­tu­tions of academia are built on col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity. Chang­ing in­sti­tu­tional cul­tures, there­fore, is some­thing that prin­ci­pled, com­pe­tent aca­demics must take on them­selves.

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