Universities have social responsibilities too

In David Macfarlane’s article (”New laws anger private educators”, January 19 to 25) it seemed to be accepted without argument that private foreign-owned university education is a good thing for South Africa.

In Emma Gordon’s article (”Are we regulating away the future of higher learning”, January 19 to 25) the assertion was made that the government is killing this budding enterprise through over-regulation, at the root of which is government’s pursuit of a politically motivated agenda to keep students in public institutions.

There is, however, no such thing as an apolitical agenda when it comes to education.
Let us not be misled. The driving force behind private higher education institutions is not altruism, or the pursuit and transmission of knowledge for its own sake, but profitability.

Governments rightly have a role to play in relation to public universities. After all, universities are costly items in a government’s expenditure. There should be some return to the taxpayer and to society in general for such an expensive investment. Thus requirements for fiscal accountability, quality assurance and the like are reasonable demands on public universities.

In a developing country like South Africa we need to know how a university’s activities materially benefit society and what, in particular, they will do for the economy. Similarly, students and their parents want to know of what use young people’s university education will be when they enter the world of work. And there is a growing expectation that universities need to contribute to the social, moral and cultural well-being of society.

The question is: should we encourage privately funded universities to take root in our country?
The teaching role of a university is to transmit important bodies of knowledge to students. Its curriculum covers a wide range of subject matter.

The typical public university in South Africa provides opportunities for a student to study science (such as physics, chemistry), social sciences (economics, psychology and the like), the humanities (for example, philosophy and literature) and the visual and performing arts (such as fine art and music). Other higher education institutions, such as technikons and teacher training colleges, usually focus on a limited number of special fields.

Would a university funded by the private sector retain the breadth and depth of the present university curriculum? This seems doubtful. Private finance is more likely to confine the training of students to fields directly related to workplace tasks. Courses leading to a degree in pharmacology are likely to be preferred to history, accountancy to philosophy. If this were the case areas of knowledge in the university curriculum would be lost.

A second responsibility of public, or government-funded, universities is research. A university’s remit is to create new knowledge, and to find innovative ways to apply it to the benefit of society and the world. But research is costly. Competing demands on the public purse mean that funding is not readily available for research.

Privately sponsored universities may have an advantage when it comes to research. However, profitability of private institutions also constrains spending on it. There is, moreover, a danger that research in a privately run university may suffer from being governed too directly by the forces of the market place.

Private universities are unlikely to offer the wide-ranging research opportunities that public universities have. Would a privately run institution allow a researcher in palaeontology, for instance, the money required to explore ancient sites or award the political scientist a grant to research alternative ways of organising society?

Public universities are also expected to participate in meeting society’s developmental agenda. This can be done through integrated teaching, research and community service programmes that meet national priorities; examples are HIV/Aids, air, water and soil pollution and crime. The expertise and skills that academics have are needed by society.

Would a privately run university be willing to meet this public demand on universities? It seems unlikely. If the motive for privately funding a university is that of a long-term business investment, then it seems very optimistic (if not naive) to suppose that such institutions will use their resources for the wider benefit of the society in which they operate. Particularly more so when the institutions are merely satellites of a university based in a different continent.

In the light of the above, it seems reasonable that government should proceed with caution in giving accreditation to private institutions.

Dr Dolina Dowling is dean of research and postgraduate studies at Vista University

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