/ 12 October 2018

The university is not a factory

'Who will the country blame when the tens of billions pumped into ‘free higher education’ don’t yield the expected returns?' Seán Mfundza Muller writes.
The recent department of higher education and training report on universities’ research productivity is interesting but it is only part of the picture. (Graphic: John McCann/M&G)


If you believe the glossy adverts, puff pieces and award ceremonies, you might think that many South African universities are becoming increasingly impressive by doing ground-breaking research, climbing the international rankings and producing high-quality graduates.

Unfortunately, the reality is rather different and the institutions’ burnishing of their own public image is a symptom of toxic dynamics that may compromise our higher education system for decades to come.

Although the crisis has historical roots, at the heart of the current rotten core is the financial incentive system administered by the department of higher education and training. By awarding funding based on student throughput and the production of research, the incentive system has injected a monetary stimulant into an already unhealthy system, fuelling problematic dynamics and creating a swath of new problems.

Whether they admit it or not, besides burnishing the images of their institutions (or, in a few cases, their own), university administrators — vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors, deans and heads of departments — are preoccupied with maximising revenue, first and foremost, from the state but also from anywhere else they can get it. The pressure to do this is typically passed straight down to individual academics.

The primary pressure is on research because the department allocates a financial incentive for every “accredited” publication. It has reached a point where some faculties send out weekly “research updates”, which attempt to quantify whether “targets” will be met.

Pressure is also exerted on the teaching side. If academics do not pass “enough” students to meet money-driven targets, regardless of the reasons, they are likely to be hauled into an uncomfortable meeting with some layer of management. They will be put under pressure to increase marks or create additional opportunities for students to get their degrees.

Sometimes this is framed as being about the students’ wellbeing but that is almost always a lie. A recent, shocking development in one institution is the introduction of student throughput rates in academics’ performance contracts, attempting to use formal punitive measures to force academics to pass students, regardless of their calibre and performance.

With these approaches, the university becomes a factory, whose managers try to churn out as many products as possible at as low a quality as they can get away with.

In a country with a more capable cadre of academics, this would already have led to substantial resistance, if not an outright revolt. But the South African system is not, and never has been, high quality. It is often forgotten that apartheid and colonialism bred a deep intellectual mediocrity. Very little has been done to prevent that mediocrity reproducing itself in the post-apartheid era.

And the introduction of crude incentives coupled with mediocrity means that effort is directed at the most pathetic activities — producing articles for the lowest-quality “accredited” academic journals and lowering standards in order to push through students at the rate demanded by administrators.

Those who play this game best then get promoted and pass on their venal mediocrity to new generations of graduates and academics.

What about university administrators? In many cases, the humble administrators who understand that their role is to serve academics, students and society at large are a rarity; more common are the administrators hoarding resources and power, or the narcissists, who see themselves as visionaries leading a flock.

It is inevitable that these characteristics become increasingly prevalent in a system that rewards those who treat the university like a factory, seeking to produce output to maximise profit, where academics are seen as subservient production-line workers.

It is an environment in which academics themselves say “we cannot fight the university”, seemingly unaware that, not only because of the nature of the university but also because of policy and the law, they are the university.

The autocratic culture in which, for example, senior management summarily decides that a 10% increase in “output” is required and sends this to academics as diktat is most easily implemented at formerly Afrikaans-speaking universities. Obedience and subservience were, after all, among the most important characteristics of apartheid. And, indeed, in some instances when academics raise concerns about the violation of academic freedom, the reaction suggests that many individuals in the system are unaware that a Constitution was promulgated in 1996.

It is also striking that some new generations of university managers from previously disadvantaged groups have quickly accommodated themselves with apartheid-style bureaucracies; they have discovered that being on the receiving end of “ja baas, nee baas” is much easier than the messiness of substantive consultation and dealing with critical intellectual engagement.

Although the demographic of students and staff at many institutions has changed dramatically for the better, problematic institutional cultures have morphed into new forms. This is why critics who rely heavily on race or gender as a basis for criticising some of our institutions tend to find themselves flailing aimlessly, absurdly, unable to pin down the problem. Race and gender remain important but are now submerged in much more complex institutional dynamics.

Adding to the complexity is that, when some inexcusable behaviours are exposed, they are quickly repackaged. Administrators who are challenged about their insistence on an 85% pass rate to maximise revenue will suddenly discover the importance of higher education for poor black students. “We cannot fail poor black students,” they argue, “because it will hurt their economic prospects and families.”

Ironically, in some institutions this has led to an otherwise perplexing alliance between educationists and corporatisers: Well-meaning educationists complain about academics having a “deficit model” of students and the corporatisers use this to browbeat staff into passing students — some of whom should probably never have been admitted in the first place — just to get revenue.

So each year tens of thousands of students are pumped out of universities with degrees so that bureaucrats can tick off their performance targets and claim revenue from the state.

Who will those students blame when the dreams they were sold collapse around them? Who will the country blame when the additional tens of billions being pumped into “free higher education” do not yield the expected returns?

A reader not familiar with our universities might wonder how this rot has been allowed to continue without greater exposure. But it should not be a surprise that in an anti-intellectual, unprincipled environment, only a handful of academics have the courage — or in administrators’ eyes, the temerity — to speak out about these dynamics.

Perhaps the most publicly outspoken has been Professor Nomalanga Mkhize, now at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and previously at Rhodes University. A small number of others have written academic papers and the occasional opinion piece on the distorting effect of publication incentives, the scale of publication in predatory journals, the “corporatisation” of the university and so forth.

The department of higher education clearly needs to be placed under pressure to address the broader harm caused by the government’s incentive system, which induces rent-seeking behaviour by institutions and their managers, and thereby distorts the behaviour of individual academics.

To date, the department has merely fiddled with the system, failing to address its main failings. Furthermore, there are currently few consequences for academics and administrators who play the system. For instance, there are many academics who obtained appointments and promotions, even up to the rank of full professor, based on publications in predatory and grossly low-quality journals.

A recent study by Andrew Kerr and Phillip de Jager of South African academic economics publications found that senior academics have, on average, more publications in predatory journals than junior ones. Publishing in such journals is usually a sign of a lack of ethics or gross incompetence. But I am unaware of a single case in which a promotion or appointment has been revoked, meaning that there are dozens, possibly hundreds, of incompetent and unethical academics occupying senior posts in our universities.

On the contrary, some academics have had the audacity to argue that the revocation of the accreditation of journals discovered to be predatory could prejudice them and be illegal. But, if something is not done soon about this state of affairs, the damage done could be irreversible for generations to come, the best-case scenario being one in which South African universities remain stagnant intellectual backwaters.

The problem is not only the lack of public resistance but also a widespread failure to confront these poisonous cultures within the key forums of the universities themselves. Notably, competent senior academics often opt out of university bureaucracies or simply limit their engagement to advancing their own direct interests. Provided they have a comfortable, well-resourced space within which to operate, these individuals simply avoid the tedious departmental and faculty board meetings at which key administrative decisions are taken.

Many “decisions” in academic forums are therefore rubber-stamped by docile or sycophantic academics, or steamrollered through in the face of any principled opposition.

The notion of “collective accountability” has become a bad joke in South Africa since it was abused by former president Jacob Zuma and his cronies to shift blame for state capture on to others in the ANC and broader society.

Yet, the principles and institutions of academia are built on collective responsibility. Changing institutional cultures, therefore, is something that principled, competent academics must take on themselves.

Seán Mfundza Muller is a senior ­lecturer in economics and a research associate at the Public and Environmental Economics Research Centre, University of Johannesburg