Lacklustre means, minuscule output

Of the three conventional mandates of South African higher education—tuition, community engagement and research—research is the hardest to transform. Universities pay lip service to our legislative framework that has recommended transformation, including the transformation of the research function, since the dawn of our democracy.

In practice, several institutions of higher learning have proceeded as if the research function does or should fall outside the purview of transformation. Several arguments are often presented, usually indirectly, in favour of this position.
These range from the shallow skills depth in the higher-education sector to the complexities of navigating the higher-education sector’s competing goals of, for example, the pursuit of excellence versus the pursuit of redress, or ambitions for redress without the provision or development of the necessary resources.

This kind of binary thinking is often accompanied by an unspoken assumption that the pursuit of excellence is the business of universities while redress is the business of the government. The government is therefore constantly enjoined to provide additional resources to “pay” for redress issues, for example, the provision of bursaries for staff and students as well as paying (extra) for the employment and promotion of staff from designated groups while universities continue to focus on excellence.

Of course, there is a dire need for resources for student and staff development, especially with a view to the cultivation of research and knowledge-creation skills. But when impoverished excellence ideals are artificially pitted against equally impoverished redress ideals, “excellence” often emerges as the winner. When the higher-education sector abdicates its own key and purposeful role in transformation by making it an optional extra, a government responsibility or an issue that falls outside the goal of excellence, the result is a higher-education sector that is slow to transform to the point of outright intransigence.

In recent years, several studies have been commissioned by the South African Academy of Science, the department of higher education and training and the department of science and technology, among ­others. The emerging picture is worrying. Two illustrations may suffice, one relating to the number of doctorates in the country and the other relating to research publications. It is important to recognise the matter of how small and precarious the higher-education sector is as a whole and how minuscule its total output is.

There are 23 institutions of higher learning plus a few science councils serving a population of nearly 50 million. The combined total research and teaching staff complement of the higher-education sector is about 17 000 people. Of those, it was found that in 2007 33% had doctorates in their fields of specialisation (the doctorate being an internationally recognised basic tool to engage in original research and knowledge creation).

The sector is small and inadequately equipped. Nor is our rate of doctoral production adequate—26 doctorates per million of the country’s total population were produced in 2007. Most of these doctoral graduates were white South African males. Black South Africans who complete their doctorates are older than their white counterparts. The numbers of Africans from other parts of Africa registering for doctorates in South Africa is high in the natural sciences and may soon outstrip the numbers of black South Africans in all fields. Up to five times more doctoral graduates are produced in the humanities and social sciences than in the natural sciences.

In 2007, nine of the 23 universities produced 83% of the doctoral graduates. Although there has been a steady growth in the number of accredited research publications since 2005, thanks to many interventions by the government, there is much room for improvement. In 2009, the entire sector produced 9 109 research output units—roughly one peer-reviewed journal article per unit. Is that enough for 17 000 academics and 23 institution of higher education? I doubt it, especially when one adds to this the fact that South Africa’s total contribution to global research is estimated at about 1%.

The reasons for this situation may lie in the issues raised in the preceding paragraph. It is interesting to note that accredited research output publications in science, engineering and technology outstrip those in the humanities and social sciences. In 2009, five universities alone produced nearly 60% of the total accredited research publications with only 36% of the total staff complement. The challenges are stark. For a country with the developmental ambitions of South Africa, we have to raise our game.

The first thing we have to do is to ensure that more of the 17 000 academics in the system are enabled and encouraged to produce research. The indications are that the number of researchers actually active in the production of research is small. Worse still, it is the older generation of white males that is producing most of the research. The current situation is therefore not sustainable over the long term.

Our greatest potential lies with the 77% of staff members without doctorates, the majority of whom come from the designated groups. Providing a supportive and developmental trajectory for this staff complement is not about narrow notions of redress and affirmative action. Interventions designed to cultivate and liberate the research potential of this staff component constitutes an intelligent investment in excellence. The future of the higher education sector may, in fact, depend on it.

Second, we must bid farewell to the inane competition between South African universities that is sometimes encouraged inadvertently by both the departments of science and technology and higher education. The fact of the matter is that such are our general and average output levels, we have little to compete about.

Instead of spending energy and money disproportionately rewarding the so-called “top five” universities, we should be developing policies designed to enable the active participation of more of our universities. Just as there is a limit to what the small minority of ageing white male researchers can achieve by themselves, there is a limit to what the “top five” universities can achieve without compromising quality.

Both departments must lead us away from the national fixation on the “top five” towards a forward-looking trajectory designed to liberate the potential in the other 18 institutions. No amount of incentives and accolades heaped on the “top five” and their top researchers will detract from the looming catastrophe. South Africa has 23 universities, not five, and until all 23 become serious players in research, we are all losers.

Year in and year out, the government, through the two departments and the National Research Foundation, demonstrates in many ways how the “top five” are excellent and the bottom 18 are dismal. This message has become monotonously predictable, adding no value. After all, the “top five” and the minority of academics producing research have no monopoly on excellence and no copyright on intelligence.

Third, the remuneration and recognition of academics, especially in the lower ranks, need to be looked at, not just by the government but by the institutions of higher learning themselves. This is not the only reason but it is one of the most important reasons why universities are unable to attract and retain young academics. It is also the reason why a doctorate is not such an attractive proposition for many young people.

This leads me to the fourth and last point, namely that we cannot hope to attract black South African students to postgraduate studies until we are able to provide them with fellowships and scholarships to support them while studying.

In conclusion, we have to start unleashing the potential of the 77% of staff who are without the facilities to produce research. This means targeting women, and especially black women. It means targeting blacks—Africans, Indians and coloureds.

It means doing all we can to attract, retain and develop them. This also means providing capacity and inspiration to the so-called 18 non-top universities. These are some of the essential foundations.

Professor Tinyiko Sam Maluleke is the executive director: research at the University of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as a supplement to the M&G in partnership with Metropolitan

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