The Foundation for Research Development, a South African body funded by the government, held a symposium recently to ponder "the role of university research in South Africa amid uncertainties of transition" - and that title was framing the problem somewhat mildly.
Researchers of some distinction came together for a day and considered the challenges posed by being in South Africa at this time in the country's history.
In the end, of course, the bottom line turns out to be money and how you justify spending it on projects which might seem to have no particular relevance to the solution of the problems of the vast majority of South Africans who do not even enjoy the most basic amenities (for example, water and electricity). The issues seem very stark and immediate in our "new South Africa", where we are struggling to re-address many decades of inequity.
The variety of opinion evident during the course of the symposium was hardly designed to comfort many of South Africa's universities, which are given some of their funding specifically for research whether or not they produce any research or indeed whether the research is likely to make any contribution to issues prioritised as national ones deserving of particular attention.
These are not matters which have resonance only in South Africa, nor are we lacking in examples of what happens to a higher education system if it is starved of funding over a protracted period of time. Examples exist both in the East and West as well as on the African continent.
We do, however, have to recognise the right of the ordinary citizen, who in the end foots the bill and wants to know whether our research universities are doing enough to meet the many challenges that affect our ability to maintain a growing, competitive economy while providing adequate security and opportunity for all our citizens.
In other words, are these universities really contributing as much as they can to help society enjoy efficient corporate management, technological progress, competent government, effective public schools, and the conquest of poverty with its attendant afflictions of crime, drug abuse, alcoholism and illiteracy?
As the debate during the symposium so dramatically (at times) emphasised, research is seldom value-free.
After all, it is not as if universities have a monopoly on research and can afford to be complacent. Many of the great inventions that spurred progress owed less to university members than they did to inventors such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and the Wright Brothers. Have you ever asked yourself what Oxford and Cambridge were doing while the industrial revolution was going on?
The fact is that research is taking place in the laboratories of many large corporations, to say nothing of research academies and government agencies.
In South Africa at least, even research that is taking place in universities is often of a contractual nature and, so far, universities are not charging the indirect overheads they do in many other countries. This means that some commercial companies are, in effect, having their research subsidised by the taxpayer. Clearly new policies are due.
Burton Clark, in an essay entitled The Fragmentation of Research, Teaching and Study in the volume University and Society, with no reference at all to the South African situation in particular, struck a chord with me when he wrote as follows: "Academics may sturdily maintain that there is nothing so useful as a good idea, and that basic ideas are best produced by unfettered research supported by stable, dependable funding oriented to the long-run.
"And, at the same time, for the future capability of the scientific community, that teaching and training must be supported and integrated with the ongoing flow of unguided research.
"But both elected and unelected government officials may well maintain that in the long run we will all be dead and that reform and improvement need somewhat shorter deadlines.
"There are so many economic and social problems plaguing each nation on which academic research can seemingly help that the need to move faster looms large in regimes that are reasonable awake . . .
"The short-term, long-term difference in the thinking of politicians and academics is systemic, a matter not of personality characteristics but of the institutional chariots to which motivation is attached.
"And it bears significantly on the willingness of governments to leave research in the unguided, 'soft' settings of university teaching departments.
"The need for responsible government actors to get things done in a definable time span strongly supports the concern to concentrate research in what appear to be immediately productive settings." (Trow and Nybom, 1991, page 108).
We can argue the case endlessly but we all know that what Clark was saying, in a general sense, has a particular resonance here in South Africa where expectations are high and the coffers depleted by past excesses.
What is, however, cheering is that many of the Government ministries are turning to the universities and individual academics in particular to assist in the framing of policies and the consideration of issues which are important to the nation's long-term interests.
Staff from my university are working on policies in the education, health, science and technology, agriculture and transport arenas.
There are secondments to land, public service and constitutional commissions as well as secondments to deal with the legal matters which give effect to a plethora of new legislation, some of which arises out of policy work.
There are also a host of development projects which range from street law, through community health to upgrading of squatter camps and imaginative (and often high-tech) solutions to pressing and immediate problems.
Derek Bok, writing in his book Universities and the Future of America, acknowledged that the potential exists among academics to respond to almost every issue on a formidable national agenda but went on to wonder whether the readiness to respond existed.
He would be reassured to witness the South African scene at the moment. I just hope that the headiness, which is sure to come from working on such real agendas, does not seduce academics permanently away from their academic life.
The fact is that as long as universities are dependent on a society attaching a value to what they do and indeed what they can uniquely do, universities really have no choice but to respond to that society's needs, especially at a unique time in the history of the country.
It seems to me that although there is clearly still much to be done, South African universities and academics have certainly not been found wanting.
Brenda Gourley is vice chancellor of the University of Natal.