Advancement – Engaging stakeholders in transformation

Against a backdrop of socio-economic turbulence in which the pressure for a comprehensive transformation of South African universities has reached a point of no return, a recent meeting of vice-chancellors and senior advancement officers reviewed the capacity of higher education institutions to engage a wide range of stakeholders – including the government, the private sector, students and alumni, and communities of practice – in processes of change.

The conference, hosted last month by South African non-governmental organisation Inyathelo at Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, considered how the country’s universities and those in other African countries should take greater advantage of growing philanthropic support for higher education to meet national and continental developmental goals.

In particular, the meeting promoted the practice of advancement and the benefits that integrated fundraising can bring, not just as a source of funding amid tightening national budgets, but as a means of improving institutional governance and leadership.

In addition, the two-day leadership retreat considered the core issue of ownership of the academy and the prospects of transforming the pedagogies, curricula and skills-training made available to meet the changing employment and business needs of students in a far more urbanised, technologically-driven world.

The meeting, “Positioning institutional advancement in times of challenge and change”, also discussed the trend towards higher education institutions becoming more anchored in local communities, seeking to provide an ethical future for societies often divided by parochial political interests.

With aid levels falling since the global financial crisis of 2008, African governments have had to overcome their historical wariness of international donors, often viewed as part of a Western agenda to influence regime change, according to one of the key participants at the retreat: the South African Institute for Advancement. As a result, the market for philanthropy has grown exponentially on the continent.

The number of United States foundations giving to Africa almost doubled from 135 in 2002 to 248 in 2012 and their funding increased from US$289 million to US$1.46 billion over the same period, a report by the Foundation Center based in New York found. Philanthropy has been assigned a major role in financing the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the United Nations in 2015.

In South Africa, individual universities attracted much of the available funding, with the higher education and health sectors obtaining the vast majority.

Donor income rose to R1.63 billion (US$120 million) in 2016 from R659 million (US$48 million) in 2013, according to data from 12 of the country’s 26 universities collated by EduActive Solutions, on behalf of Inyathelo, as part of a 2017 Annual Survey of Philanthropy in Higher Education. So-called traditional research universities attracted the lion’s share – more than 90% – of funding.

The need for philanthropy

With the growing recognition of philanthropy’s importance to the budgets of individual universities, advancement has become a far more integral aspect of higher education management. Accordingly, potential vice-chancellors are now asked about advancement – the practice of raising funds as part of efforts to effect institutional transformation – at their job interviews.

The Annual Survey of Philanthropy in Higher Education found that those South African universities with well-funded and appropriately staffed fundraising and alumni-relations offices were receiving proportionately higher levels of philanthropic income. In addition, the study of philanthropy had become a field of academic enquiry in its own right, with a chair in the subject established at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Meanwhile, the continent has the fastest-growing number of high-net-worth individuals, according to the World Wealth Report 2015. And although the amount donated by individuals in, for example, South Africa remained a relatively small percentage of the total giving compared with the ratios in Britain and the US, the numbers indicate individual giving is growing and is set to become a new norm.

In this regard, South Africa’s historically black universities may have the advantage in laying greater claim to the loyalty and generosity of former alumni, which poses a challenge to historically white universities that need to transform their institutional cultures in order to foster a greater sense of connection with, and among, all their alumni – underlining the importance of relationship-building for advancement practitioners.

The deepening and widening of good practice in the field of advancement has contributed to a paradigm shift within the higher education sector from short-term, project-led fundraising initiatives to system-wide approaches to engaging donors. This shift has been assisted by the support offered by the American Kresge Foundation in establishing the field.

However, although philanthropic foundations have derived increased clout from greater giving in South Africa, they may jeopardise their potential effectiveness by collaborating too closely with government officials, whose diktats could be overturned in an unstable political climate. Accordingly, they have often sought to fall into step with larger, systemic domestic concerns, in particular the issue of socio-economic redress for past historical wrongs.

In this regard, policy initiatives that may be traced back to the influence of philanthropic foundations include the South African Department of Higher Education and Training’s support for initiatives to expand the academic pipeline to enable the appointment of more young, black women professors.

This is considered crucial given that most of the leaders at South African universities, including vice-chancellors, deans and professors, are men, and these institutions have been increasingly challenged over the authenticity of their commitment to transformation.

Student protests

Since nationwide #FeesMustFall student protests erupted in 2015, South African vice-chancellors have been seeking to provide leadership in a conflict-ridden operational environment in which the best-laid plans have often had to be abandoned. Events have at times overtaken strategies to transform, and support more equitable access to, the country’s massified higher education system.

Room for manoeuvre by university leaders has been constrained by government underfunding of their institutions, which has cut deeper as student numbers have risen, and by the burden of remedying the deficiencies of the country’s secondary schools, which have failed many students.

Within this context and as the leaderships at a number of the country’s top higher education bodies have entered a period of transition, important questions have been posed around the range of experience of university leaders and whether skills from outside the sector would prove constructive in managing the increasing complexity of tertiary institutions.

One view is that the lessons of corporate leadership may usefully be applied to the academic environment to ensure sustainable institutional growth. Another view is more sceptical about the merits of hiring university leaders from beyond academia.

Notwithstanding the more limited question of who should lead, African higher education institutions have increasingly found themselves confronting the crucial challenge of reimagining their practices and repositioning themselves – transforming from elitist, esoteric preserves into inclusive, engaged public institutions, while retaining excellence.

Tertiary enrolment is 12% in Africa compared with 30% globally. In this context and in line with the African Union’s Agenda 2053, the academy should look beyond the campus gates and seek to disseminate knowledge with the explicit goal of fostering national development. At the same time, African universities need to interrogate the contents of their curricula and how these subjects are taught, building on the twin African legacies of thought leadership and intellectual activism.

The #RhodesMustFall movement in South Africa highlighted the need to decolonise and locate curricula in local contexts. For example, teaching international languages is no substitute for teaching national ones – the paradox being that the more place-based higher education institutions become, the greater the value that is placed on indigenous knowledge and the more significant their contributions to the evolution of a less tribal, global academy.

In addition, the intersections among digital technology, entrepreneurship and social change need to be acknowledged and supported by universities in their pedagogies, curricula and skills-training. In this regard, integrated fundraising practices, or advancement, play an important role in positioning and differentiating universities, as well as supporting strategic initiatives such as fostering greater access, decolonising the curricula and increasing entrepreneurship within the institution.

A crucial challenge faced by advancement officers is effectively communicating the work of their institutions in an easily understood way to key potential partners and in support of the virtues of transformation in a massified higher education system. In this regard, the continued transformation of the South African academy cannot be achieved by mere branding. It requires comprehensive engagement and dialogue between universities and their local communities built around a civic sense of interdependence.

In contrast to parochial, ivory-tower universities, such institutions would seek to prioritise studying and producing high-impact scholarship that validates their public mission and responsibilities to the democracies of which they are engines. In terms of messaging, such 'anchor' institutions become legitimate in the public’s eyes through a self-fulfilling cycle of authentic, democratic engagement.

Although South African universities remain hampered by a range of internal political, functional and demographic divisions, often operating as a lightning rod for contestation and conflicts within the larger society, they have clearly accepted that they must adapt to student and broader socio-economic needs. In addition, the need to promote a sectoral voice on the future shape of higher education in the country and beyond has been increasingly acknowledged.