Mail & Guardian

Three ways to right the three Rs

22 May 2007 00:00 | Peter Vale

A former vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University and a vastly experienced academic and administrator who has held senior positions in Australia, Chris Brink leaves our shores soon to take up the vice-chancellorship of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. In this interview, he is provoked him into some plain speaking by six wide-ranging questions about the local tertiary scene.

Based on your experiences both in South Africa and overseas, do South Africa's universities punch above or below their fighting weight? Why?

That depends on who you regard as your competitors. If you look at the international rankings, no South African university appears in the top 200 list of The Times Higher Education Supplement. But we'd almost certainly be top of the list in sub-Saharan Africa. That pretty much seems to reflect the position of South Africa -- somewhere between 'developed” and 'developing” countries.

Has the South African government intrusion into higher education helped (or hindered) the country's universities these 13 years past? Which interventions have been helpful, which harmful?

In my experience there is less government 'intrusion” into higher education in South Africa than in Australia, and also less than I expect to find in the United Kingdom. We do not, for example, have regular visits by government delegations to check up on our performance indicators, nor do we have allocated student numbers, nor is student placement done centrally.

The only really strong government intrusion into higher education during my time as a vi

ce-chancellor has been the mergers and amalgamations exercise that created the current university landscape. Although opinions differ on the efficacy of the various mergers and amalgamations, I think there was wide acceptance at the time of the political necessity of doing such a post-apartheid restructuring.

One of the most positive 'intrusions” has been the creation of NSFAS, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, and the strong growth in government funding allocated to it.

Shouldn't we just accept -- and tell it like it is -- that the country has a two- or three-tiered university system. Should this pluralism determine the distribution of state resources to higher education?

The problem with proclaiming a tiered system, as opposed to a differentiated system, is that it soon becomes a linear ranking, and as such does not recognise the fact that there are different kinds of universities striving to do different things. While newspapers and sciento-metrists love to do it, governments prefer to stay out of the ranking business.

Among universities, by and large, there is commonality of purpose regarding the first two of their traditional three core functions: teaching and research. But where universities really differentiate themselves is in the manner and extent to which they practise the third core function, which is community interaction.

In South Africa, I think the closest we come at the moment to a tiered system is an acknowledgement of the fact that there are only five universities in the country which are so-called 'broad-base”, meaning that they cover the entire spectrum of the humanities and sciences, including medicine and engineering. These five form the most natural counterpart in South Africa to what in Australia would be called the 'Sandstone” universities, and in the UK the Russell group.

As for the distribution of state resources, the question is whether you wish universities only to compete against each other for a larger slice of the same cake, or whether you can find a means whereby a university would compete against itself, being rewarded on top of the normal subsidy for any outstanding achievements. In other words, a performance bonus scheme.

Can the country really fix higher education without first fixing its abysmal schooling system? How should we do this?

I don't think higher education in South Africa needs 'fixing”. The Nationalists had a go at fixing it to shape their ideology, and the current government had a go at fixing it to undo what the previous lot had done. So I think we've had enough fixing for a while. What I do think is needed is to increase the incentives for people to enter and to stay in higher education. And yes, it would certainly help if the schooling system delivered more potential university students, but that by itself will not be sufficient. The simple fact is that academics are underpaid -- as are teachers -- and so it is not an attractive career option.

Has the increasingly fashionable demand that higher education cater for 'community interests” not diverted the sector from pursuing its calling to both educate for the professions and create new knowledge? By being compelled to reach into communities, aren't the universities being asked to do what government should be doing?

I must say I am surprised at the assumptions behind this question. In my view, community interaction is not an 'increasingly fashionable demand” made on universities, nor have I as a vice-chancellor ever felt 'compelled” by government to do it. It is something that is simply good sense for a university to do, in order to further its academic objectives.

I am not talking here of 'community service” in the philanthropic sense of, say, running soup kitchens for the poor. Laudable and supportable though such initiatives may be, they do not fall within the core business of the university. I am talking of community interaction in the sense of partnerships for mutual benefit. Stellenbosch University, for example, as is shown by the Thrip awards (the Technology for Human Resource Infrastructure Programme of the department of science and technology), has excellent links with business and industry, particularly with local sectors such as the wine industry of the Western Cape. Of its overall budget for 2006, 43% came from some kinds of third-stream activities.

So community interaction has certainly been to the university's advantage and I like to think that we delivered value for money in return, in terms of intellectual capital. But it is not all just about money. For example, I started an initiative with the executive mayor called 'Reinventing Stellenbosch”, which aims to address the fact that Stellenbosch is still a divided town of black, brown and white. Doing so certainly won't bring in any cash, but it will help create a better quality of life for our staff and students, and thus be to our benefit. And I could mention many more examples.

Community interaction, as I see it, strengthens rather than inhibits the other two core functions of teaching and research. A smart university would have a well-developed and carefully chosen set of partnerships in the community, designed to link up with its academic aims.

If Nadeli Pandor asked you to take over the higher education portfolio for a week, name three things that you would do to make a difference to the sector and say why.

I would declare mathematics a national priority. When I was president of the South African Mathematical Society in 1994, we actually submitted a fairly detailed proposal in this regard, called the Mathematics Development Programme, or MDP (to fit with the Reconstruction and Development Programme, or RDP, which was then the policy of the incoming government). But the time was not ripe, and other social programmes were just considered to be more urgent and more important.

Thirteen years later, however, we are still bottom of the class regarding the mathematics competency of learners, and it may be time to do something about that as a national priority rather than piecemeal engineering. As we argued in 1994, the basis of education is mathematics and language. It's all about the three Rs.

I would amend the tertiary funding formula to reward universities that teach in more than one language. The vice-chancellors of the five historically Afrikaans universities submitted a lengthy analysis and proposal in this regard to the minister in 2005, at her invitation, but we never received a response. This is not just about Afrikaans. This is about growing a place for teaching, or tutoring, or writing laboratories, or even just discussion groups, in all 10 of our indigenous languages, on all our campuses. In principle, all our universities should practise multilingualism. But it costs money to do so.

I would open a debate on the question whether the higher education portfolio fits best within the education portfolio. There is a case to be made for including universities under the science and technology portfolio instead, and I think it is time for us to bring that question into the open.

Peter Vale is the Nelson Mandela professor of politics at Rhodes University

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