What is higher education worth?

What is higher education worth? This is a question that the recent revelations about vice-chancellors’ remuneration inadvertently raises. It is a pertinent question. Not only does it pertain to the obvious question of whether top management within higher education deserve the amount it is paid, but it goes further to ask how the public feels about higher education.
Do we as a society feel as if we are getting our tax money’s worth in light of the amount the state contributes to this sector?

Strangely enough, this is not a question that is raised in business circles where it seems that — if conducted in accordance with the King commission on corporate governance — even if remuneration is exorbitant, it is still acceptable because it is transparent. It follows then that the present furore has less to do with salaries than with a perception that civil society is being misled by the higher education sector, which should be leading the way in aligning civic duty with financial remuneration.

The salary issue raises questions that are being hotly debated within the sector. What are the roles of universities and technikons? To what extent can they regulate themselves? And how important is institutional autonomy? These questions also go to the heart of the university’s identity. In the face of diminished state funding, in South Africa and internationally, there is increasing pressure on institutions to find additional revenue streams from partnerships with business, donors and the like. This means that institutions are increasingly being forced to conduct themselves as businesses rather than repositories for the production and creation of knowledge.

The answers to these questions are being foregrounded via the salary debate. For this reason alone the sector should welcome a thorough investigation, which would focus institutions on what they are and what they are becoming.

During the October annual general meeting of the South African Universities Vice-Chancellors Association (Sauvca) we issued a declaration of intent that addressed the issue of self-regulation. Participants identified the need to more strongly demonstrate higher education’s desire for greater efficiency and increased accountability. 

To give effect to self-regulation in respect of the current issue we agreed to establish a task team to look into vice-chancellors’ salaries. This task team will consist of experts within higher education and will be extended to include the Department of Education as well as specialists in business and civil society. Sauvca is finalising the terms of reference and it is expected that the investigation will start a process that extends beyond the salary packages of vice-chancellors and senior management to include remuneration across the entire higher education institution. We note the interest of Minister of Education Naledi Pandor in this matter and we have every confidence that our objectives will converge.

That Sauvca intends investigating an issue such as remuneration is crucial if the sector intends to achieve self-regulation and if it is to offer value. It will also achieve clarity on how to measure remuneration in an equitable way. Only once an acceptable basis for comparison is achieved, can guidelines, benchmarks and performance management systems be introduced. Obviously in cases where major remuneration discrepancies do exist, the council (which generally determines the remuneration package) will be accountable.

The intention is to have this project completed by March next year. Not only because of the urgency of this issue, but because it must coincide with the creation of the new leadership association, Higher Education South Africa, which incorporates universities, universities of technology and the newly created comprehensives. Moreover, it is anticipated that this association will finally abolish apartheid’s fragmentation of the sector and pave the way for a unified and cohesive higher education.

Higher education is a vital national asset. We believe that the way in which we seek to address the remuneration issue will get us closer to achieving greater transparency and public accountability. This for us is an ethical issue of immense importance.

Professor Njabulo Ndebele is the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town

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