Thursday, August 18, 2016

Wither the Universities?

Michael - Thursday

From 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. 
University of the Witwatersrand
Shanghai university ratings
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.

Minister of Education
Blade Nzimande
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.


  1. Michael, it seems there is a moderate way forward in the some pay now, some pay later plan. In the US, we used to get loans directly from the government, a part of which could be forgiven if the lendee taught in a "needy" public school. Interest rates were low. But then the Bush Administration gave the lending over to private banks, with government guarantees and no forgiveness for service to schools. Now, the lending companies get rich, and the students are overburdened. Woe to any country that goes in that direction. As I said, moderation seems a good path. But almost none of the world seems headed in that direction. Woe to all of us.

    1. Thanks, Annamaria. I think that sort of model could work. Jansen notes:
      "...the government must ensure that whatever scheme it devises to fund indigent students, including the so-called “missing middle”, it must be sustainable – such as recouping investments in low-interest student loans through a highly efficient revenue collection system when the graduate obtains a job."

      The problem is that it's all about rhetoric now instead of about solutions.

  2. We have a few variations on the theme. I got a bursary from my local council - that repeated every year for five years, to go to my UNI in London. It paid the fees but gave me very little to live on. Others there self funded or tapped into the charity set up by graduates to help fund further education.... which is easy when all the graduates walk into well paid jobs.
    Then Tony Blair decided that 50% of the population were entitled to have a degree and old garages and bike sheds were given university status. Then tertiary education in Scotland became government funded, so the more prestigious universities tried to attract more foreign students as they would pay a profitable sum. But that meant less places available for Scots students. The Scots system seems to be so well funded that some lucky students can save the subsistence part of the funding or buy a car with it. Some do end up with massive student debt, but is that due to a mismanagement of funds? And it seems to be taken for granted to swap course three or four times if the going gets rough.
    I think I am getting very grumpy as I get older....
    I'm not sure what the situation is south of the border.

    1. I suggest that the question in the title applies much more broadly than to South African institutions. We are just faced with a looming crisis while many other systems are facing longer term structural issues.
      As to grumpiness, it's not that as we grow older people do more stupid things, just that as we grow older we've experienced more people doing stupid things!

  3. Student debt is a life determining event in the US for many. The choices one makes after graduation at times depends on not just whether an additional degree is worth additional indebtedness, but whether the job will allow the student-debtor to get out of debt within a reasonable time....such as several decades. It's a real crisis, that Congress seems unwilling to address.