Poor performance rewarded with grants

Top research universities are upset about being “penalised for overperforming” by a government subsidy system designed to help former technikons and historically black institutions to catch up on research capacity.

Academics and officials at three of the country’s leading universities say they are unhappy about the Education Department’s allocation this year of R174-million in research development grants to several universities which did not meet their research targets in 2006.

The formula on which the development grant is based “has established a perverse incentive” and “rewards universities for performing poorly”, said Professor Kit Vaughan, deputy dean of research at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) faculty of health sciences.

All universities receive an annual subsidy based on their research outputs: the number of journal publications plus the number of master’s and PhD graduates. Each university has a set target for research outputs based on the number of permanent academic staff multiplied by a weighting factor which is different for universities and former technikons.

Last year 17 institutions received R148-million in development grants above their research subsidies, from a total R1,38-billion in research subsidies.

This year R1,5-billion was allocated based on the performance in 2006.

Leading research institutions like Stellenbosch, UCT, Rhodes, Pretoria and the Free State, which exceeded their research output targets in 2005 and 2006, have received the basic subsidy only.

In a paper, soon to be published in the South African Journal of Science, Vaughan writes that six universities (Walter Sisulu, Vaal, Venda, Limpopo, Durban and Mangosuthu) received more in developmental grants than in actual subsidies for their research output in 2005. The same applied to their 2006 output. If their performance were to improve their total research grant would decrease.

“The development grant needs to be set up to assist those that are performing. The weaker universities need to be assisted in other ways,” he said.

The deputy director general of higher education in the Department of Education, Molapo Qhobela, said that about three years ago the department introduced development grants to assist institutions expected to battle with research production.

Many institutions have been using these funds to hire more staff or to buy more journals as a means of building their research capacity, he said.

Officials at two prominent research universities, which requested anonymity, said: “Over-performers should have an investment in their success. They’ve proven their worth.” They also questioned whether it is realistic to have all 23 universities producing research.

UCT’s deputy vice-chancellor, professor Danie Visser, said last year the university asked the Education Department for a share in the developmental grants. “We argued that — regardless of our national standing — all South African universities face the reality of a rapidly ageing cohort of top researchers.

“If South Africa is to remain globally competitive it is vital that measures are adopted to enhance our international standing.”

Justifying his university’s R17-million development grant against its R2-million research subsidy, professor Marcus Balintulo, vice-chancellor of Walter Sisulu University said his institution incorporated a merger of three historically disadvantaged institutions (University of Transkei, Eastern Cape Technikon and Border Technikon).

For a start the research skills base was low and the infrastructure needed attention. Funds will be used to recruit research professors and for laboratory upgrades.

University of Limpopo vice-chancellor Mahlo Mokgalong, whose university received R34-million in development grants against its R24-million subsidy, said: “The system cannot be corrected in three years. Big research producers should partner with us in academic development.”

Qhobela said a committee has undertaken a review of the efficacy of the development-grant allocation. “We asked institutions for submissions on how it can be improved for development purposes. The outcome of the review will inform improvements to the current system.”

While this does not mean that all current non-recipients will get development grants “it opens possibilities for institutions to be supported to achieve their different aspirational goals. If a university says it needs to move its research productivity to the next level what will be assessed are benefits for the country,” said Qhobela.

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