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Funding research-intensive universities should be a national priority

- Adam Habib and Mamokgethi Phakeng

Protecting research universities is key to growing the higher education sector and making South Africa globally competitive.

Universities are national assets and important catalysts for addressing inequality and enabling inclusivity in our society. But they can only do this if they are both nationally responsive and globally competitive.

To successfully and simultaneously undertake these twin mandates, universities have to form part of a differentiated system in which different institutions have distinctive mandates. All universities should deliver on their respective roles so that the diverse needs of the economy and society can be addressed collectively. In differentiated systems, some institutions produce vocational and technical skills, others develop first degree graduates and professionals, whilst graduate and research-intensive institutions foster masters, PhDs, research outputs and technological innovations. Each part of the system has a specific and important role to play in the development of our country. Across the world, the countries with the most successful economies are those with differentiated higher education systems.

South Africa’s multiple policy papers recognise the value of a differentiated system. Yet, the importance of differentiation does not seem to be internalised by stakeholders within higher education and government. The most recent manifestation of this disjuncture is the discourse emerging within some sectors of government and the higher education sector, which recommend that fee increases must be lower for research-intensive universities than for other institutions.

On the surface, it may seem fair because these universities have the highest fees in the sector and need to be lowered to equalise the fee structure in order to make the institutions more affordable. However, the logic of fairness ceases when one considers the distinctive mandates of research-intensive institutions. In South Africa for example, Wits and UCT together produce 20% of South Africa’s higher education research output. If one includes the other research-intensive universities – the University of Pretoria, the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Stellenbosch University – the percentage of research output is 52.1%. Further, the quality of research output from Wits and UCT - measured through the Category Normalised Citation Impact scores - is 72% higher than the global average.

Providing these institutions with a fee increase lower than other universities - and lower than CPI - would effectively reduce the net resources available to the research-intensive universities and undermine their ability to deliver the important contribution that they are making nationally. It will also reduce South Africa’s competitiveness in the global academy and the broader knowledge economy.

Those who are advocating for research-intensive universities to receive lower than inflation increases ignore the fact that a significant component of fees (approximately 70% at Wits) are paid through corporates, and other scholarships and bursaries. Whilst an increase below CPI will save money for corporates and other institutions, it will have a detrimental impact on the research-intensive universities who rely on this revenue stream.

This approach also neglects the fact that there are dissimilar cost structures for different universities based on their respective geographic locations and mandates. Universities located in urban settings have far higher cost structures than those in smaller towns. Similarly, universities with Engineering, Health Sciences and Science faculties have higher cost structures than those with smaller footprints in these disciplines. It is important to note that although the intention may be to equalise the system, the system in fact requires the differentiation in order for us to achieve the goals of equality, accessibility and global competitiveness.

We want to be clear that there is a need to develop other institutions that have been historically disadvantaged and we welcome government’s commitment to do so. But we cannot build a higher education system at the cost of compromising institutions at the apex of the system.

South Africa cannot build higher education in South Africa by taking resources from the research-intensive universities whilst still expecting South Africa to remain globally competitive. Instead, we should build the sector by demanding that Wits and UCT meet the national obligations of access and quality. It is worth indicating in this regard that at Wits and UCT, black students (African, Indian, coloured, international) comprise the majority of the student body.

Wits and UCT are fundamentally different institutions to what they were in 1994 and it is important that stakeholders acknowledge this fact. Moreover, Wits and UCT are increasingly accepting graduates from other universities into postgraduate studies, thereby enabling growing mobility in the higher education system which is exactly what is required to create an accessible, equitable and competitive higher education system.

As institutions committed to the socio-economic transformation of our society, we believe in building a higher education system that is accessible, equitable and differentiated because this is in the best interest of South Africa’s national development goals. Research-intensive universities comprise one component of this differentiated higher education system and it is a significant element of our national system which enables South Africa to remain competitive in the global academy and economy. Taking away resources from the research-intensive universities will not enhance the higher education system. Instead it will effectively push all of us into a system of undifferentiated institutions. The net effect would be a false equality in which all of us become the same and our ability to compete globally will be diminished.

It is worthwhile noting that in China and the South East Asian nations, selected institutions have been identified as research-intensive ones with resources poured into them to enable their competitive engagement in the global academy and economy. If we erode the research-intensive university, we would in effect undermine the very differentiation necessary to meet the distinctive mandates of the economy, and allow South Africa to be competitive globally.

Both Wits and UCT acknowledge that our relative advantage today is the product of an unequal history but we cannot address the historical injustices by destroying the relative advantage of these institutions. Rather we should address this issue by deploying these institutions to meet the objectives of the nation itself: class mobility, addressing inequality, demographic transformation of our professional classes and ultimately contributing to the inclusive development of our society.

This is the only way to address the historical injustices of our past. Any other way would be a false equality that pushes us towards a collective mediocrity in which South Africa and Africa will forever be subject to the whims and decisions of the more well-endowed parts of our world.

Professor Adam Habib is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand. Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Cape Town.