Varsities: We daren't let the bucks stop here

Graphic: John McCann

Graphic: John McCann

I was cornered in the lift this week by a student who piped up in a typical Wits-cheeky manner: “So, Prof Habib, I heard you on radio yesterday announcing that Wits has received R100-million from an anonymous donor. Does this mean that my student fees are covered for the next few years?”

“No,” I replied, “We need more funds. All universities in South Africa need more funding if we are to develop as a sector and contribute towards the development of high-level skills in our country.”

I did remind him that he was indeed one of the privileged few to make it to university, and that he had a responsibility to give back to his university and to society for receiving a world-class education.

Universities have the responsibility to align their priorities with those of the country and the continent, to foster socioeconomic development, and to produce the high-level skills required to compete in the global knowledge economy, or risk being left behind. Research-intensive universities in particular have an obligation to address our immediate pressing difficulties and, more importantly, to focus on the challenges of the 21st century and how they could be solved.

The capacity of our universities, and research-intensive institutions in particular, to operate optimally and competitively in generating knowledge-intensive activity is dependent on three factors: academic talent, adequate financial and appropriate governance systems. This is a point made by Philip G Altbach and Jamil Salmi in their report commissioned by the World Bank.

Governance is not a real challenge in the more established universities in South Africa. However, among them there is an intense scramble for top academic talent from South Africa and beyond, and for financial resources from largely the same sources: the state, trusts and foundations, the corporate sector and student fees.

Subsidies stagnant
In recent years, government subsidies have been stagnant, and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. A recent report on funding by the department indicated that our universities are under-funded by about R15-billion when compared with the global average. This is a shocking state of affairs, especially considering that the government still wants to expand the system.

This is why student fees have risen so dramatically in recent years. University executives have had to compensate for a declining government subsidy through an increase in fees. But families are already stretched, and it is unlikely that we can continue to rely on them to make up for the declining government subsidy. It is thus imperative to explore alternative income sources.

Making do with less resources is not an option. It would, in effect, mean a decline in quality. We do not want to repeat the crisis of schooling where poor people were provided with access, but without adequate resources so that quality was compromised to the point that the entire system is now facing a legitimacy and delivery crisis.

Alternative income sources will also diversify the universities’ fiscal foundation. This is important for universities to continue to maintain their integrity as members of the fourth estate and as fundamental pillars of our fledgling democracy.

Some universities can indeed exist on a government subsidy and student fees alone, but they would find it difficult to compete with their counterparts in the global arena.

Moreover, the more reliant we become on funding from one source – whether industry or state – the more our institutional autonomy and academic freedom could be compromised.

Accountability dynamic
A diverse income base is thus necessary for research and teaching competitiveness, and for enabling the accountability dynamic that is necessary for the consolidation of democracy. The world’s greatest universities are such because they are well resourced.

If South Africa wants to be compatible with the knowledge-oriented globalised economy of the 21st century, then it is imperative that it has such knowledge-driven and research-intensive universities. But these have to be well resourced, and in an environment where government subsidy is stagnant, some of the resources would have to come from alternative sources such as corporates and financially well-sowed alumni.

This is why the recent donation of R100-million made to the University of the Witwatersrand is particularly important for higher education in South Africa today. It sets an example of what is possible when wealthy individuals see the opportunity to invest in our collective future by supporting the institutions of innovation and knowledge that ultimately benefit us all.

R10-million of this donation was dedicated to the Wits Art Museum, which houses more than 10?000 unique works of African art, and the remaining R90-million was left as unencumbered funds for teaching, learning and research activities in the ways that Wits deems most appropriate.

A similar investment was made to Wits about a decade ago by Donald Gordon, which enabled Wits to acquire the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Parktown. This facility enables Wits to supplement specialist and sub-specialist training in public hospitals, thereby increasing the pool of specialised healthcare professionals in the country.

While Wits is still to determine how exactly to invest the funds, there are several key areas on which we are focusing. These are not very different from those of many other universities in the country.

Academic talent
First, there is a need to attract, retain, produce and reproduce academic talent in generous measure, if we are indeed to strengthen the academic pool in South Africa and on the continent. This is imperative not only for universities, but also for industry because they, too, are in dire need of high-level, skilled individuals. In turn, these talented individuals need, through their expertise, to replicate and reproduce these skills in a university environment. 

Second, an investment in high-end quality research is an investment in the future of society. We need inventors, innovators and thinkers who have the ability to translate ideas and complex thoughts into valuable outputs, be they technological, economic or social products that transform our world. We require talented individuals at the cutting edge of research who will serve as catalysts to foster development in our country, and enable us to punch above our weight in the global sphere.

To this end, we need concentrated research hubs such as the National Research Fund’s Centres of Excellence, funded by department of science and technology and the government, private chairs supported by industry, or the multiple other active partnerships between academia, the public and private sectors and civil society.

It is only through working together that we can dramatically address our collective challenges and create a better society for all. Yet all of this is only possible if we have an enabling environment. Researchers, academics and students require quality learning environments, which include but are not limited to world-class infrastructure and facilities, technologically advanced lecture theatres and laboratories and cutting-edge research equipment.

In recent years, the state has invested several billion rand in the renewal of physical infrastructure at universities across the country. This is warmly welcomed, but it must be recognised that we are only at the beginning of what is required to develop top-notch institutions.

Finally, the student in the lift was not entirely wrong. Our collective commitment must be towards our students – those in the system and those in the pipeline. We must work with our students and enable them to pass through our system as quickly as possible, to make way for the next cohort, and to increase the number of skilled individuals in the country.

More bursaries
Our partnerships with industry should translate into more bursaries for students, which will give them peace of mind and allow them to complete their studies in record time.

Wits Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarships and Vice-Chancellor’s Equality Scholarships are great models, as they are partly funded by industry and simultaneously reward excellence and address historical inequities. We need many such programmes across our universities.

The challenges, triumphs and the failures of the 21st century are ours to address and make. How we perform in this regard will be judged by future generations. But to do so effectively, these challenges requires us to respond as a collective community, defined in our behaviour by the principles of solidarity and effectiveness.

Our anonymous donor who made this generous R100-million contribution took a massive step in this direction. We must honour this person by ensuring that we invest these resources in a way that leaves a lasting positive impact on our collective security.

Professor Adam Habib is vice-­chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand

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