Let's refocus efforts on building brighter future

April 23, 2004

A partnership between state, society and universities is key to the development of South Africa, writes Derrick Swartz.

On Monday, South Africa celebrates ten years of freedom - and the role of the international academic community in challenging the injustice of apartheid should not pass unnoticed.

The country's third democratic elections show overwhelming popular support for the African National Congress and, by implication, its policy strategy. Universities are now repositioning themselves for the challenges ahead. For universities to engage fully with the continuing transformation of South Africa's economy and society, we must move beyond (without abandoning) traditional roles such as graduate output and publications output. Two powerful forces are propelling us towards a reinvention of our role - democracy and globalisation.

The challenge of democracy has led the ANC government to realign the sector to support new policy objectives. In its first phase, universities were integrated into a single legal framework of governance, followed by a massive process of rationalisation. This process, which reduced the number of institutions from 36 to 21, was necessary to overcome the legacies of an ethnically segmented system. At the same time, a new funding formula and research funding framework has been developed.

The mergers, predictably, have created some difficulties. Many issues, including adequate funding, management and leadership, still need to be resolved. But there has been progress, and in 2004 the government is expected to push ahead with the reform programme.

Institutions have to change gear from a merger preoccupation to repositioning if we are to make the grade in relation to the challenge of national development. Our core business is knowledge production and dissemination. The key challenge of the post-apartheid university is to apply this core mission to supporting the democratic project.

One example is Fort Hare University's Liberation Archives Project, aimed at using memories of our recent past as a source for posing questions about citizenship, democracy, human rights and equality in the new South Africa.

The president, Thabo Mbeki, has lent his support to the project, which he said would safeguard a vital part of the country's history, so that scholars, students and millions of ordinary South Africans of tomorrow will better understand the "events that gave birth to our non-racist, non-sexist and democratic land".

The first element is mandate relevance - to position our institutions to serve multiple and diverse communities of interests, using our knowledge as a source of social, economic and cultural development. We must be a core part of the national development agenda, where the issues of poverty, unemployment, healthcare and human development cry out for engagement.

Universities need to be keyed into critical national policy initiatives beyond the narrow graduate and research areas in which they have traditionally been involved. This requires a strategic compact between state, business and universities - a 20/20 vision, where the specific role of knowledge-based institutions is outlined, recognised and supported through key public and private sector resource caches.

The second challenge, related to the issue of globalisation, is to create markets for our students, scholars and intellectual services. The emerging African Union is a key platform for continental-wide higher education programmes. We have a responsibility to ensure that Africa's leaders take higher education seriously and support its role as a catalyst for developing the human capital needs of the union. We are moving towards formation of a university association for the Southern African Development Community as we seek to strengthen the African Association of Universities.

A well-resourced and well-functioning system of higher education must be at the base of these strategies. Government and university leaders need to agree a funding framework adequate to the task of public-service development. Markets can complement but not substitute public funding of key mandates. If universities are to participate in key national projects such as e-learning, biotechnology, agribusiness, enterprise development, manufacturing and modernisation of the public sector, they must have qualified staff and appropriate infrastructure.

These institutions must demonstrate responsiveness and responsibility in the way they govern themselves. A mutually supportive partnership between state, civil society and universities is the key to the future.

Derrick Swartz is vice-chancellor of Fort Hare University, alma mater of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Mangosuthu Buthelezi and many other leaders of South Africa.

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