Varsities must strive for both excellence and transformation

Many opinion pieces and letters have appeared in newspapers and the inboxes of University of Cape Town (UCT) executives in recent weeks, in response to the #RhodesMustFall campaign. Several have suggested that transformation and academic quality are mutually exclusive.

These views hold that UCT should carry on with business as usual, because this is what has enabled it to achieve its current status as a leading South African university with considerable international recognition. They hold that UCT’s current mode of operation is a manifestation of a uniform Western model of higher education enacted by universities of high quality.

The meaning of academic quality is rarely explained in the opinions expressed around #RhodesMustFall. These views disregard considerable international scholarship on the nature of higher education, which describes the many and complex roles of a university: generating scientific knowledge, producing graduates able to contribute to the economy, inculcating values of citizenship and social responsibility, and making intellectual contributions to public discourse. Implicit in these roles is responsiveness to the needs of society, and all are fulfilled to varied degrees and in varied forms by the leading universities of the world.

The rankings that attempt to measure quality and signify universities’ relative standing are contentious because they do not adequately measure performance in all these roles; they reduce complex functions of higher education to simple numbers. They do nonetheless influence institutional reputations.

What does one find when investigating the rankings?

The 2014-2015 Times Higher Education world university rankings place UCT at position 48 for clinical, preclinical and health sciences. The publication doesn’t break down its rankings to reveal specific areas of excellence within this category, but other clues point to the reasons why UCT fares so well.

South Africa is second only to Canada in the number of awards and the amount of funding given to foreign countries by the National Institutes of Health, the United States government’s primary funding agency for biomedical and health-related research. UCT receives the largest amount of funding from this agency of all universities outside the US, with the majority of the grants dedicated to research into infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV.

The Financial Times global MBA ranking for 2015 places UCT’s MBA, offered by its Graduate School of Business, 52nd in the world. The business school concerns itself with emerging markets and the MBA, although international in scope, also addresses the South African context.

British company Quacquarelli Symonds recently released its university rankings by subject for 2015. Several South African and African universities were hailed for their excellence in development studies, including UCT and the University of the Witwatersrand, ranked seventh and 15th respectively. This is in a field that typically addresses poverty and inequality and their cultural, economic, social, political and environmental determinants, especially in developing countries.

These three areas in which UCT has been highly ranked deal with topics to which African scholars are able to contribute substantively and uniquely.

The data processing requirements of the Square Kilometre Array project have resulted in investment in computing infrastructure as well as in training in science, engineering and technology, enriching South Africa’s capacity in these areas.

The challenge for South African universities is to extend their excellence beyond just infectious diseases, development studies and emerging markets, and to be institutions of and for South Africa and Africa, and to use transformation as a route to excellence. Universities need the courage to defy and redirect extreme and entrenched positions on transformation – on the one hand, the demand that debate and critical discussion on institutional complexities be abandoned in favour of immediate transformation and, on the other, the fear that transformation equates to a loss of quality and a capitulation to irrational and self-serving demands.

South African higher education is doomed if we think of transformation and quality as mutually exclusive. Creating a South African university that is both transformed and excellent, as well as both locally responsive and internationally competitive, will require imagination and deep reflection.

Tania Douglas is a professor of biomedical engineering and the deputy dean for research in the faculty of health sciences at UCT

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