Michael - ThursdayFrom time to time I’m asked by people I meet how things are going with South African universities. Have standards fallen? They know that I’m still a part-time professor at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). I don’t want to speculate about what motivates these worries, but recent student protests and wrangling with the government have certainly brought them to the fore, and I hear these concerns from black acquaintances as well as white ones. My answer is that as far as my subject area is concerned (mathematical sciences), I feel standards have risen, research is stronger than ever, and graduate students are as good as before and there are far more of them. Whatever failings we’ve seen in government primary and secondary education in this country (and there are many), the government has been supportive of quality tertiary education and research, especially in the science, technology, and health areas.
This week a report came out from one of the organizations that rates universities worldwide and tracks established universities' relative positions in the top 500 in the world from a research perspective. Only 34 countries made the 500 cut and, although all these types of ratings can be criticized on a variety of fronts, if we accept their criteria and look only at relative position over time, the situation for South African universities is encouraging.
The graph shows the relative position of my university over the last 13
years. Starting in 2003 just making the cut, and then being in the 300-400
position range (not terrible in view of the number of institutions worldwide
and the quality and funding of many of them), we have now moved to the top
university in Africa at 203. This seems
to indicate either that Wits has improved as a research university or that many
others have weakened. I believe both are
true. What’s more a further four South
African universities also made it onto the list.
|University of the Witwatersrand|
Shanghai university ratings
|Minister of Education|
So does this indicate that all is well? Hardly. The universities here are currently facing what may well be the biggest threat since the previous government segregated them by race and thus subsequently largely isolated them from the rest of the world. The current threat comes from an unlikely quarter. Our own students. And they have a lot of arguments on their side that will not be alien to people in the US and many other countries.
|Fees Must Fall protest at Wits|
Last year’s student demonstrations were sparked by an ill-considered announcement before the end of year examinations of fee increases ranging between 9% and 11%. This in an environment where inflation was running at around 6%. Of course the local currency was weak and many academic requirements – books, journals, equipment - were escalating at very much higher rates. This sparked the Fees Must Fall campaign that led to mass student protests, some not so peaceful. Last year I wrote about it here. The protests escalated to government level (where they really belong) and the solution was a zero fee increase for 2016. The government promised to fill the revenue gap. It filled part of it.
A year has passed. The government is talking about an inflation-related increase, too little for the universities. The students want free tertiary education for all who qualify academically. The left wing EFF (which became king-maker in the elections of a week ago - see Stan’s post here) has cheerfully adopted a policy of free quality education at all levels. They know they won't have to fund it. Students have already closed two university campuses for several days, and have threatened to close them all for a year if necessary to achieve their demands.
Jonathan Jansen, Vice Chancellor at the University of the Orange Free State, points out in an article in the Herald Live - Demise of Universities Near - that there are three choices: Free education and the government foots the bill. This is pretty well universally accepted as unaffordable in terms of South Africa’s economy and priorities. Or a well thought out plan that allows all qualifying students to attend university, but involves payment either now (if they can afford it) or later in some reasonable way. (Yes, we have heard of the student loan trap in the US, for example.) The third option is that we stagger from year to year with zero fee increases and the government supplying more of the budget, but with the cake shrinking over time. Another zero fee increase this year will see some universities closing programs and retrenching staff. As Jansen puts it: “What happens in the next week or two can determine whether your children and grandchildren will have respectable universities to go to in the future, or any university at all.” And he goes further: “When a country loses its universities, it loses self-respect.”
Really, it’s the people of South Africa who must decide what they want in terms of tertiary education. The sad thing is that the public seems uninterested, content to see it as an issue to be sorted out between the students, the universities, and the government. As for Jansen himself, he's heading for Stanford.
Watch that graph turn sharply downward over the next few years.