Vice-chancellors explore research potential and limits

South African vice-chancellors called for renewal of the academy, more and better postgraduate training and greater policy coordination at their biennial research and innovation conference last week. There was a lively debate over differentiation, and a decision to meet with captains of industry and forge more productive relations with the private sector.

The Higher Education South Africa, or HESA, conference was held on 2-3 April at the sprawling campus of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria. It was titled "Higher Education Engaging with the National Development Plan: Exploring the possibilities and limits in research and innovation".

It was a quick step - universities have been on this journey many times before - from the sub-title to the conclusion that South Africa's research potential is severely constrained by structural limits such as lack of funding and qualified academics, and competing pressures for greater access and equity in higher education versus improving quality.

The question was how to break through these constraints, or ease policy clashes, and it was this that vice-chancellors or their deputies engaged with during the conference.

Key decisions

The debate was structured into three strands: supporting the renewal of the academic profession; increasing postgraduate access and outputs; and creating an enabling environment for research and innovation.

There was acknowledgement of the need for game changing interventions in each area, said Dr Jeffrey Mabelebele, CEO of HESA.

A HESA commission into renewal of the academic profession had drafted proposals around developing the next general generation of academics. It was agreed that the next step was to engage with the government on implementation, and the importance of this was underscored by the university leaders, Mabelebele told University World News.

Regarding increasing postgraduate access and outputs, during discussions it became clear that universities had been grappling with this issue for some time and interesting initiatives and approaches had been emerging.

"Some universities have succeeded in introducing mechanisms, policies and incentives to ramp up their performance in that area. We are going to compile a compendium of good practice so that we can ultimately have a sector-wide intervention to promote those promising practices."

Thirdly, said Mabelebele, "there was an acknowledgement that in the absence of a much more structured intervention between ourselves and industry, we will not be able to deliver on the imperative to strengthen research and innovation capacity. We have got to find better ways of dialoguing with industry."

It was agreed to hold a 10-a-side meeting between vice-chancellors and captains of industry that will be facilitated by one of the conference speakers, Sizwe Nxasana, CEO of FirstRand Limited, a huge financial services and banking group that is internationally recognised for innovation.

"There are issues around the trust deficit between the higher education sector and business." Going forward, the plan is to build consensus between the two through continuous interaction.

Universities in South Africa are grossly overpaying for access to journals because of the failure to present a united front and negotiate with academic publishers, said University of the Witwatersrand Vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib, who also chairs HESA's Research and Innovation Strategy Group.

This project had been struggling to get off the ground, and Mabelebele said one of the outcomes of the conference had been agreement from the Department of Science and Technology that this matter would be expedited with government support.

Policy aspiration versus reality

Aside from the structural challenges that South Africa faces along with other developing and emerging countries, a key factor hampering research and innovation is incoherent government policy and scratchy implementation. This was a fourth key area of agreement among vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors.

"We really need to find a way of strengthening coordination across government. The issue of fragmentation was mentioned very sharply," Mabelebele told University World News.

It was vital to tackle this problem, to ensure that government departments were engaged in ways that facilitated better responses from universities and industry in relation to research and innovation.

Part of the problem is the clashing visions of different government departments.

The Department of Higher Education and Training stresses massification, demographic transformation, free higher education for the poor and huge growth of the college sector to boost access and skills production - although it also heavily supports research via subsidies for academic publication and the production of postgraduates.

On the other hand the Department of Science and Technology sees higher education and research as a key driver in the pursuit of a knowledge economy and has ambitious targets to grow research and innovation and the production of PhDs.

It is widely understood that it is unrealistic, in a resource-strapped environment, to both massively expand higher education, heavily subsidising the poor - the majority of students - while improving quality and growing research and postgraduate production.

And then there is the National Planning Commission, or NPC, which the conference in its title urged higher education to engage with. It is located in the office of the president and headed by Trevor Manuel, minister of planning and a keynote speaker.

In late 2011 the NPC published the National Development Plan: Vision for 2030.

It saw higher education as a major driver of a knowledge society, and universities as key to development through training high-levels skills, producing new knowledge and providing opportunities for social mobility in a highly inequitable society.

The plan proposed that the participation rate in higher education should be raised from 17% to over 30% and that student numbers be increased from 950,000 in 2010 to more than 1.62 million in 2030 - a 70% increase, partly through expansion of private provision. Enrolments in further education and training should grow from 300,000 to 1.25 million.

Among other things, it also proposed the tripling of doctoral graduates from 1,420 to 5,000 a year, increasing the proportion of academics with PhDs from 34% to 75%, and developing world-class centres and programmes within the national system of innovation and higher education.

In other words, it combined the visions of both government departments.

Trevor Manuel, a respected minister who is leaving government after elections next month - the 20th anniversary of South Africa's democracy - told the conference that given the unlikelihood of funding for higher education increasing above inflation, universities needed to think of imaginative ways to work towards the targets set for them.

Higher education enrolment had more than doubled before, Manuel pointed out, and beyond the matter of headcount enrolment universities needed to tackle the problem of a 50% drop-out rate and the country's radical skills shortage, and government needed to review a funding system that subsidised enrolment whether or not students graduated.

"What the NDP does is provide a broad view. It speaks to the fact that we need hard thinking about the post-school system and its responsibility to provide a range of skills."

There needed to be debate about numerous issues including tenure, the delivery of higher education beyond bricks and mortar, and the problem of first-generation students not continuing into postgraduate studies because of enormous pressures on them to earn money to support families.

Competing goals for higher education was an ongoing issue, Mabelebele said, "but it is also a symptom of a bigger problem". This was the misalignment between policy aspirations - whatever they may be - and 'levers' in relation to funding and capabilities both within the university system and government.

"We need to inject some form of realism into the conversation where we are able to say, these are the policy aspirations, we are now going to model them for implementation purposes." If policies were more aligned to funding and capacity, they would be able to be implemented.

"We haven't been doing that. We simply develop a policy and then throw it into the realm of implementation, and the implementers have to find a way of wrestling with it. We need to correct that.

"The debate between massification on the one hand and quality on the other should be anchored within this broader conversation."

Biggest elephant in the room

Which brings us to the issue of differentiation, which was the biggest elephant in the room - as it has been for two decades.

The question of whether, given resource shortages, South Africa's top-performing institutions should be the focus of research funding to enable them to achieve research and development goals while other institutions focus on undergraduate teaching; or whether state funding should be directed towards building the research capacity of all universities.

This is politically charged because top-performing universities are those that were formerly advantaged (white) while those with less research were historically disadvantaged (black).

It was pointed out at the conference that the schism between research-performing universities and those primarily involved in undergraduate teaching had been narrowing in some cases, as historically disadvantaged institutions such as the Western Cape and Fort Hare have grown research output.

Perhaps one way through the differentiation question could be to focus on how these universities turned around their research fortunes by responding to steering incentives, and support similar strategies in other 'disadvantaged' institutions, the conference agreed, while not resolving the differentiation debate.

Perhaps the National Development Plan points the way forward through its acknowledgement that universities are key for development both in terms of equity and knowledge production. A meeting of visions might elevate thinking out of ideology and towards realisable strategies.