Return of the natives

February 24, 1995

One year on from South Africa's first free elections The THES analyses the current state of higher education. A well-qualified foreigner recently accep-ted a chair at a South African university. Nothing untoward in this, of course: the ending of the boycott has meant a deluge of academics applying for positions there.

The problem was that he had simultaneously accepted similar chairs at three other South African universities. He had actually been interviewed for four senior positions, and had probably applied for more.

Is this story a metaphor for South Africa's universities? Nominally excluded from the family of learning for so long, they seem to have returned at the very moment that bargain and barter have replaced academic decorum.

Competition for the best staff - and in this story the applicant was Nigerian - is only an aspect of academic globalism in which the bottom line and mission statement, rather than the ivory tower, are symbols of excellence.

Responding to the global academic village could never be easy for South Africa's universities. Grounded in three separate traditions, universities struggled through the 1980s.

Shrinking budgets, increased politicisation and poorly equipped laboratories and students: these were enough to rip the guts out of any university system. Add isolation, horrendous academic in-fighting and an illegitimate government bent on implementing ideological principles, and it is difficult to understand how it was that they emerged intact.

But the next phase of their lives - adapting to the demands of reconstruction and development and reaching out to the world - will be more difficult. Cost cuttings, rationalisation and fear of retrenchments stalk common rooms where once, depending on the institution, support for the banned African National Congress, the struggle for human rights or the merits of apartheid were the standard fare.

Many academics are moonlighting. Some departments in the Rand Afrikaans University, established in the late 1960s to counter the power of English culture and wealth in Johannesburg, are running a day shift in Afrikaans and a night shift in English. Serious scholars are wondering where they will find the time to pursue their research.

Faced with this, the promise of rejoining the international mainstream seems to be a lifeline but it may become, many now argue, a liability. Most South African universities have taken their return to the international community seriously: numerous committees to deal with this new side of their lives have been established, and public affairs offices have been boosted. There is no shortage of work for these structures, but implementing coherent policies may prove difficult and costly.

In earlier times, conducting a university's international relations were simple. Foreign funds were channeled through a few select agencies: keeping tabs on them fell to university administrators who, the record shows, are among the most competent cadre of professionals in the country.

There is almost no evidence of misappropriation of public money. The apartheid government had a notorious record for graft and, very recently, it has become clear that foreign funds which were intended to support the anti-apartheid movements found their way into personal bank accounts. Nowadays, however, the international relations of South African universities have become difficult. Returning exiles have presented qualifications from institutions as far apart as Georgia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau and Papua New Guinea.

Wandering academics are peddling schemes to save mankind (and their own funding, of course) through the experience of South Africa's transition. And, particularly at this time of year, snowbound northern-based academics find compelling reasons to be in South Africa.

As the metaphor suggests, South African universities have lost their innocence. The challenge for universities is to become streetwise without haemorrhaging their great pools of intellectual strength and integrity. The lure of money may drag research and fellowship agendas in directions which conflict with local experience, expertise and needs.

The predatory ambitions of foreign institutions - especially the Australian and the British, who increasingly advertise in the local press - may draw the best local students.

Rationalisation of universities, which is the next step on the agenda, will help, but meeting the global challenge can only come from careful repositioning. Some options seem obvious: immediate geographical positioning suggests that South Africa is well placed to draw on its neighbours.

But this has already proved a mixed blessing. Far stronger than their neighbouring sisters, South Africa's universities have become a magnet both for staff and students from southern Africa. The long-term social, economic and political consequences of this inflow are serious.

Increased numbers will feed the growing national paranoia about immigrants: students are particularly vulnerable. More importantly, every talented individual who moves to South Africa weakens prospects for civil society in their home countries.

But the strain on universities will be formidable. African students will not necessarily strengthen South Africa's universities: the very best and brightest will still be drawn to Harvard, Cambridge and the Sorbonne. And once they graduate, will they go home? The experience of Chinese and Mexican students in North America suggests not.

Whether South Africa can supplant Europe and the United States as the preferred destination for this traffic is unknown. Quite clearly, however, northern foundations and other funders favour this outcome.

A recent promise of tied money linked the idea of bringing more African students to South Africa for postgraduate science and technology education. Counter-proposals to take local expertise into the continent - with less bureaucratic interference, incidentally - met strong resistance. No decisions have been made, but the purse may prove full of irresistible arguments.

Perhaps a way forward is a creative and far-sighted plan that develops a triangular relationship between start-up funding from developed countries, South Africa's universities and institutions in neighbouring countries. Electronic communications, modular teaching and short-term exchanges may provide the foundations of an integrated African response to the challenge of the global academic village.

But ideas like this remain muted. As the silence deepens, so does the number of foreign students applying for admission to South African universities. Consider this statistic: in the first nine months of 199, the Universtiy of Cape Town received 220 unsolicited postgraduate applications from countries elsewhere in Africa. Following the cut-off date for admission, some 100 applications continue to be received per week. Delay and dither have proved costly for South Africa's universities. In the 1970s the country was at the cutting edge of the earth sciences. Two decades later South Africa had lost to Australia and others all but a residue.

The failure to build on a unique geological heritage - mainly by misdirecting research funds both from government and the country's powerful mining sectors - robbed South Africa of a comparative advantage and of highly skilled professionals who moved in search of better laboratories.

Will other areas of expertise be sacrificed? Again, nothing is certain. Perhaps local funding and the training of postgraduate students will have to be geared towards consolidating pools of local expertise.

So, for instance, South Africa's botanists may have to draw a laager, the traditional circle of wagons, around the Capensis floral region, the unique fynbos of South Africa's Cape Province. They may have to apply innovative thinking to the medicinal properties of its rich plant life to secure government funding.

They will have to guard jealously both this work and the resource on which it draws. Foreign funding it seems has no respect for national heritage: not for nothing is the world's finest collection of South African manuscripts said to be located in the University of Texas library.

Other areas on which South Africans may have to concentrate are coastal and near-shore marine studies, particularly in the life sciences. Not only are South African zoologists recognised as among the world's best, but Africa's hope may lie in the sea. Certainly the need to encourage tourism in South Africa is linked to the exploitation of its sea resources.

The country's archaeologists also have a unique role: they will have to build on the "out of Africa" thesis where they have set the debate since the beginning of the century.

It does not end there. Sociologists, historians, political scientists, economists and business economists live in a laboratory which has no international equal. The ending of apartheid, the processes of reconciliation and the government's Reconstruction and Development Programme are a series of experiments which, in the opinion of many, offer hope for the next century. By a mix of miracle and madness, South Africans have turned deep-seated conflict towards democracy and, if the latest economic indicators are to be believed, they are growing an economy in terribly adverse circumstances.

International bureaucrats, northern-based development specialists and others may have much to learn from the South Africans. Will the country's universities be entrepreneurial enough to cash in on their findings?

All this will not be easy because an inquisitive world will not go away. Since their founding have South Africa's universities faced no greater moment of international truth. South African academics are learning that the international contacts for which they have so long yearned require focused disciplines, institutional self-discipline and individual assertiveness.

While the welfare of apartheid's universities was once the legitimate concern of the world's universities, they are no longer: the business of the world's universities is a highly competitive one.

Peter Vale is professor of Southern African studies at the University of the Western Cape and Maarten de Wit is Philipson Stow professor of geology and mineralogy at the University of Cape Town.

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