New partnerships can help universities regain public trust

South African universities face a crisis of public confidence and the sector needs to find new ways of working together and with their broader society if they are to fulfil their mandates and support the survival of the country’s higher education system, according to Universities South Africa (USAf) Chief Executive Officer Professor Ahmed Bawa.

Speaking at the annual leadership retreat convened by Inyathelo: The South African Institute for Advancement and attended by government, civil society and higher education representatives, Bawa reminded delegates how universities had been portrayed by the media during the #FeesMustFall student protests that spread nationwide in 2015.

“It was as if they were somehow owned by the vice-chancellors,” said Bawa. This image stoked a popular view of them as elite institutions without a broader public mandate, he said.

“But universities are not only knowledge institutions; they are social institutions with a range of roles. As such, they should build productive relationships with their publics if they are to survive,” Bawa said.

In large part, universities are owned by the people – they draw on the public purse and produce public goods – and the public should be made more aware of, and value, them accordingly, he said.

Training and knowledge production

In this regard, the meeting placed emphasis on both the training and knowledge-production functions of universities, which foster new employment by creating a more highly-skilled workforce (it has been estimated that each graduate produces three jobs) and meet employers’ staffing needs.

The importance of these functions and the difficulties of fulfilling them were acknowledged by Diane Parker, deputy director-general: university education at the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). “The domestic higher education system is under pressure to produce graduates who can meet the demands of a rapidly-changing modern world in the throes of a fourth industrial revolution,” she said.

“But the system faces significant challenges adapting to these demands in the context of widespread poverty and ecological decay, as well as a rise in nationalism globally.”

In response to the pressures on the system, she said the national government had committed to increasing higher education funding from 0.68% to 1% of gross domestic product (GDP).

However, despite this pledge and the apparent recognition by government of a developmental role for universities, it was noted at the meeting that many members of the public and the political class have little understanding or experience of the contributions that universities make to their societies.

Bawa attributed the disconnect to the fundamental reorientation of the higher education system after the introduction of democracy in South Africa in 1994, when links established by the historically white universities in support of local and national economic development under apartheid were severed.

The end of universities as place-based agents

Although the massification of access introduced a new form of engagement from 1994, the role of universities as place-based agents of development and change in their neighbourhoods and regionally has generally not been promoted. In order to re-establish social ownership of the universities, Bawa advised that “new epistemic connections should be built between these institutions and the broader society”.

However, different interests existed among stakeholders in the higher education sector, government, the private sector, civil society and the media, who define and promote the roles that universities can and should play.

In response, Bawa argued, a form of leadership is required that exploits the forces at play. Such leadership must entail a grasp of the big picture – a sense of the functions and purpose of the whole higher education system in relation to society and to the national and globalised knowledge economy.

Within this analysis, key priority areas for action should be defined, such as the need to improve student success rates, which would help to satisfy public expectations, he said.

Inter-institutional collaboration

Another priority area is the establishment of an articulated approach among university departments and institutions, moving staff out of their silos to forge joint academic programmes and research projects.

“These would both serve to institutionalise a new collaborative approach across the system and could represent attractive funding opportunities for donors,” said Bawa. He proposed the development of a joint doctoral programme in mathematics, statistics and physics among universities and the establishment of a single publisher, bringing together the various academic presses across the country.

In order to produce the necessary alignment among institutions for such joint projects, clear direction should be provided by those leading the sector, who should view such relatively autonomous collaborations as an opportunity to build capacity within the system.

Systemic capacity could be further enhanced through national and pan-African platforms for creating strategic alliances and joint projects, such as USAf’s Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme, Bawa said.

New partnerships

From the government side, it was acknowledged that partnerships were required to realise the DHET’s vision, in Parker’s words, for “an engaged, democratically representative, articulated university sector”.

Partnership has also been the theme shaping the new kinds of aid for the higher education sector being offered to South Africa since aid budgets were slashed following the global financial crisis in 2008.

Donors had increasingly sought new forms of cooperation, said Ghaleeb Jeppie, chief director: international relations, DHET, including ones in which they sell their expertise and educational services to South Africa.

Participants at the Inyathelo meeting were advised by Shelagh Gastrow, director of GastrowBloch Philanthropies, that, in forging partnerships, it is important for the donors and potential recipients of funds to ensure an alignment of interests and cultures. In the absence of appropriate preparation, contestation can arise, particularly if there is a shift from a voluntary cooperative arrangement to a funded collaboration.

A range of structures for assigning funding and responsibilities among partners was proposed. For example, the University of Cape Town has sold shares in an initiative to improve the quantitative research skills of students across disciplines which is run by the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit to other universities, including the University of the Western Cape and the University of Fort Hare.

In addition, the current cohort of vice-chancellors should be encouraged to come together as leaders to nurture a culture of interdependence within the system.

Mark Paterson is a senior journalist and communications consultant with a wide range of non-governmental, government and academic organisations.