Sunday Times

How will uni­ver­si­ties sur­vive?

Two vice-chan­cel­lors give their views

- By ADAM HABIB and MAMOKGETHI PHAKENG Pro­fes­sor Habib is the vice-chan­cel­lor and prin­ci­pal of the Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand. Pro­fes­sor Mamokgethi Phakeng is the vice-chan­cel­lor and prin­ci­pal of the Univer­sity of Cape Town Educational Inequality · Education · Belgium · Belarus · Iceland · University of the Witwatersrand · University of Cape Town · Cape Town · Pretoria · KwaZulu-Natal · Stellenbosch · Austria · China · Africa

● Uni­ver­si­ties are na­tional as­sets and cat­a­lysts for ad­dress­ing in­equal­ity and en­abling in­clu­siv­ity in our so­ci­ety. But they can do this only if they are na­tion­ally re­spon­sive and glob­ally com­pet­i­tive.

To suc­cess­fully and si­mul­ta­ne­ously un­der­take these twin man­dates, uni­ver­si­ties have to form part of a dif­fer­en­ti­ated sys­tem in which dif­fer­ent in­sti­tu­tions have dis­tinc­tive man­dates.

All uni­ver­si­ties should de­liver on their re­spec­tive roles so that the di­verse needs of the econ­omy and so­ci­ety can be ad­dressed col­lec­tively. In dif­fer­en­ti­ated sys­tems, some in­sti­tu­tions pro­duce vo­ca­tional and tech­ni­cal skills, oth­ers de­velop first-de­gree grad­u­ates and pro­fes­sion­als, while grad­u­ate and re­search­in­ten­sive in­sti­tu­tions fos­ter master’s de­grees, PhDs, re­search out­puts and tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions. Each part of the sys­tem has a spe­cific and im­por­tant role to play in the de­vel­op­ment of our coun­try. Across the world, the most suc­cess­ful economies have dif­fer­en­ti­ated higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems.

SA’s mul­ti­ple pol­icy pa­pers recog­nise the value of a dif­fer­en­ti­ated sys­tem. Yet, its im­por­tance does not seem to be in­ter­nalised by stake­hold­ers within higher ed­u­ca­tion and gov­ern­ment. The most re­cent man­i­fes­ta­tion of this is the dis­course emerg­ing within some sec­tors of gov­ern­ment and higher ed­u­ca­tion which rec­om­mends that fee in­creases be lower for re­search-in­ten­sive uni­ver­si­ties than for oth­ers.

On the sur­face, it may seem fair be­cause these uni­ver­si­ties have the high­est fees in the sec­tor and they need to be low­ered to equalise the fee struc­ture in or­der to make the in­sti­tu­tions more af­ford­able. How­ever, the logic of fair­ness ceases when one con­sid­ers the dis­tinc­tive man­dates of re­search­in­ten­sive in­sti­tu­tions. In SA, for ex­am­ple, Wits Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Cape Town (UCT) to­gether pro­duce 20% of SA’s higher ed­u­ca­tion re­search out­put. If one in­cludes the other re­search­in­ten­sive uni­ver­si­ties – Pre­to­ria, KwaZulu-Natal and Stel­len­bosch – the per­cent­age is 52.1%.

Fur­ther, the qual­ity of re­search out­put from Wits and UCT — mea­sured through the Cat­e­gory Nor­malised Ci­ta­tion Im­pact scores — is 72% higher than the global av­er­age. Pro­vid­ing these in­sti­tu­tions with a fee in­crease lower than other uni­ver­si­ties — and lower than CPI — would ef­fec­tively re­duce the net re­sources avail­able to re­search-in­ten­sive uni­ver­si­ties and un­der­mine their abil­ity to de­liver the im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion they are mak­ing na­tion­ally. It would also re­duce SA’s com­pet­i­tive­ness in the global acad­emy and the broader knowl­edge econ­omy.

Those who are ad­vo­cat­ing for re­search-in­ten­sive uni­ver­si­ties to re­ceive be­low-in­fla­tion in­creases ig­nore that a sig­nif­i­cant com­po­nent of fees (about 70% at Wits) is paid through cor­po­ra­tions, and other schol­ar­ships and bur­saries. Though an in­crease be­low CPI will save money for cor­po­ra­tions and other in­sti­tu­tions, it will hurt the re­search-in­ten­sive uni­ver­si­ties which rely on this rev­enue stream.

This ap­proach also ne­glects the fact that there are dis­sim­i­lar cost struc­tures among uni­ver­si­ties, based on their lo­ca­tions and man­dates. Ur­ban uni­ver­si­ties have far higher costs than those in smaller towns. Sim­i­larly, uni­ver­si­ties with en­gi­neer­ing, health sci­ences and science fac­ul­ties have higher cost struc­tures. It is im­por­tant to note that although the in­ten­tion may be to equalise the sys­tem, the sys­tem in fact re­quires dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion in or­der for us to achieve equal­ity, ac­ces­si­bil­ity and global com­pet­i­tive­ness.

We want to be clear that there is a need to de­velop in­sti­tu­tions that have been his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged and we wel­come the gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment to do so. But we can­not build a higher-ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem by com­pro­mis­ing in­sti­tu­tions at the apex of the sys­tem. SA can­not build higher ed­u­ca­tion by tak­ing re­sources from re­search-in­ten­sive uni­ver­si­ties while ex­pect­ing to re­main glob­ally com­pet­i­tive. In­stead, we should build the sec­tor by de­mand­ing that Wits and UCT meet the na­tional obli­ga­tions of ac­cess and qual­ity.

It is worth in­di­cat­ing in this re­gard that at Wits and UCT, black stu­dents (African, In­dian, coloured, in­ter­na­tional) com­prise the ma­jor­ity. Wits and UCT are fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent in­sti­tu­tions to what they were in 1994 and it is im­por­tant that stake­hold­ers ac­knowl­edge this. More­over, Wits and UCT are in­creas­ingly ac­cept­ing grad­u­ates from other uni­ver­si­ties into post­grad­u­ate stud­ies, thereby en­abling mo­bil­ity in the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem — which is ex­actly what is re­quired to be ac­ces­si­ble, eq­ui­table and com­pet­i­tive.

As in­sti­tu­tions com­mit­ted to trans­for­ma­tion, we be­lieve in build­ing a higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that is ac­ces­si­ble, eq­ui­table and dif­fer­en­ti­ated be­cause this is in the best in­ter­est of SA’s na­tional de­vel­op­ment goals. Re­search-in­ten­sive uni­ver­si­ties com­prise one com­po­nent of this dif­fer­en­ti­ated higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and it is a sig­nif­i­cant ele­ment of our na­tional sys­tem which en­ables SA to re­main com­pet­i­tive in the global acad­emy and econ­omy.

Tak­ing away re­sources from the re­search-in­ten­sive uni­ver­si­ties will not en­hance the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. In­stead, it will ef­fec­tively push all of us into a sys­tem of un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated in­sti­tu­tions. The net ef­fect would be a false equal­ity in which all of us be­come the same and our abil­ity to com­pete glob­ally will be di­min­ished. It is worth­while not­ing that in China and the South­east Asian na­tions, selected in­sti­tu­tions have been iden­ti­fied as re­search-in­ten­sive ones, with re­sources poured into them to en­able their com­pet­i­tive en­gage­ment in the global acad­emy and econ­omy.

Both Wits and UCT ac­knowl­edge that our rel­a­tive ad­van­tage to­day is the prod­uct of an un­equal his­tory but we can­not ad­dress the his­tor­i­cal in­jus­tices by de­stroy­ing the rel­a­tive ad­van­tage of these in­sti­tu­tions. Rather, we should ad­dress this is­sue by de­ploy­ing these in­sti­tu­tions to meet the ob­jec­tives of the na­tion it­self: class mo­bil­ity, ad­dress­ing in­equal­ity, de­mo­graphic trans­for­ma­tion of our pro­fes­sional classes and ul­ti­mately con­tribut­ing to the in­clu­sive de­vel­op­ment of our so­ci­ety.

This is the only way to ad­dress his­tor­i­cal in­jus­tices. Any other way would be a false equal­ity that pushes us to­wards a col­lec­tive medi­ocrity in which SA and Africa will for­ever be sub­ject to the whims and de­ci­sions of the bet­ter-en­dowed parts of our world.

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 ?? Pic­ture: Gallo Im­ages/Foto 24/Jaco Marais ?? Com­pet­i­tive: UCT pro­duces more than its share of re­search out­put.
Pic­ture: Gallo Im­ages/Foto 24/Jaco Marais Com­pet­i­tive: UCT pro­duces more than its share of re­search out­put.

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