How many “world class” universities can SA afford to have? Once or twice a year, when some international organisation publishes its most recent rankings, the media abound with comments and criticisms about the inability of more local universities to make the top 100.
There has been world-wide debate on the basis of the rankings and some of the fallacies surrounding it. How many universities in the world can, after all, produce many Nobel prize winners – one of the criteria?
Leaving those legitimate criticisms aside, I want to focus on a different aspect: how many universities per country should be in the rankings?
This question is one that governments have taken seriously, making them pour millions into their higher education. In fact, China has gone as far as identifying 100 of their more than 2 000 institutions to invest in, so that at least 20 would be in the top 100.
Is this something our government should follow, even if we could afford it?
Linked to this question is how important it becomes to differentiate between universities. How do we decide who should try to get into the rankings?
Although no one says it outright, I get a sense that most universities would like to be like UCT – the only local university in the top 200.
The debate on differentiation has been with us since 1994 – and we have made precious little progress in it.
A factor that complicates the debate is the matter of historically disadvantaged universities and how (or whether) “redress” has taken place adequately.
The basis of any meaningful differentiation can only be the approach to the “core business” of universities: teaching, learning and research.
All other criteria can at most be important for individual or collective positioning or branding.
Meaningful differentiation can be achieved where universities position themselves on the continuum of teaching, learning and research, where the one end would be more emphasis on teaching and learning and the other more research-intensive. That is not to say that a research-intensive institution could or should not be excellent in its teaching and learning or that it is possible to undertake quality teaching and learning without a research foundation.
Teaching, learning and research are mutually reinforcing. But a choice must be made – we cannot all aspire to be research-intensive.
Second, differentiation has to go hand in hand with focus, both in programmes offered and areas of research. Not even UCT can be a leader in all areas. But some local universities can, collectively and individually, be world leaders in selected disciplines.
With regard to the emphasis on teaching and learning, it must be borne in mind that as a developing country, the needs of SA are many and urgent.
We need to give the thousands of school leavers a good education and prepare them to be constructive citizens, making a contribution to the country and its challenges, including providing adequate skills for a growing economy.
Focus on these basic things is paramount and our universities and their approach must be fit to do this.
It is for this reason that the North-West University decided to become a balanced teaching, learning and research university.
We all agree that the state’s first responsibility is to fund all universities adequately to perform this task.
For differentiation to succeed, the funding of universities should also be differentiated, but in a fair and equitable manner. There is suspicion that the present funding framework advantages universities that position themselves on the research side of the continuum.
Any university that has the guts to say “we are going to be the best teaching and learning-focused university in the country” should also have the benefit of special government funding. And it should be able to draw the best lecturers. Such a move would be the beginning of a virtuous cycle in which teaching and learning and research become mutually reinforcing. There are nearly 9 000 higher education institutions in the US. Any university that offers a PhD is considered a research university (according to that definition, all 23 SA universities are “research universities”).
The point is: of the 9 000 US higher education institutions, only 3 percent or 297 are considered to be research-intensive, and of those, only 18 percent are in the world rankings.
Applied to our situation, we cannot afford to have more than, say, 10 percent of our universities compete in the research-biased world rankings. In a new differentiated funding regime, two of our universities should be assisted to break into the top 200 in the world.
And, at the risk of being criticised by the people in the north or the east, I believe those two are in the south.
We should empower the best we have in the research-intensive field.
l Eloff is the vice chancellor of North West University.