A commitment to meeting national needs can lead a charge to world-class status, argues Adam Habib
Leading any 21st-century university is a challenging task, but undertaking this responsibility in the developing world is even more onerous, since the contextual challenges tend to be more acute and the systemic environment more complex.
Structural poverty and inequality in these societies seep across institutional boundaries and force the university’s executive to confront local problems, such as students who cannot afford to eat and who battle to find accommodation. Systemic disparities in education mean that limited state budgets are directed at primary and secondary education, with the result that underfunding in higher education is perpetuated. And in a world where science and higher education have no national boundaries, addressing these challenges while still pursuing globally competitive university education and research requires hard trade-offs that are not simply managerial and strategic but also ethical and moral.
As a relevant and responsive institution, the University of Witwatersrand, at the heart of the South African and African economy, needs to confront these challenges. In one sense, it is blessed. Like its host country, Wits reflects multiple social realities within its precincts. It has world-class infrastructure and a balance sheet that most African universities can only aspire to. Yet this budget, while large by African standards, is minuscule compared with those of its international peers and seen against its own ambitions. Moreover, although the university can boast world-class scientists, research and teaching, it still has to manage basic problems of student homelessness and even starvation. In addition, given that South Africa is still in its developmental phase, Wits constantly has to balance the imperatives of building a globally competitive university with demands to be nationally responsive. Thankfully, these need not be mutually exclusive goals.
There are some, of course, who hold that to be world class requires eschewing the national and imitating the foreign. Wits, by contrast, holds as a principle that it is precisely in responding to the national context that an institution can become globally competitive. It is the responsiveness to one’s contextual specificities that enhances a university’s ability to make unique contributions to the global corpus of knowledge. To use two Wits examples: deep-level mining engineering and palaeontology – both globally competitive institutional strengths that required, and were enabled by, a responsiveness to national challenges and endowments.
A second principle informing our approach is a more globally recognised and common one: world-class universities are built by great academics who are given financial resources and an enabling environment within which to operate. Both goals – national responsiveness and global competitiveness – will define our agenda in the years ahead.
National responsiveness is reflected in our commitment to diversity and racial integration. Wits is currently the most demographically representative of South Africa’s research-intensive universities. Yet we are also mindful of the importance of retaining our cosmopolitan character both in national and racial terms, and doing so without explicit or implicit racial quotas.
National responsiveness is also reflected in our rejuvenated attempt to address progression and completion rates. South Africa’s statistics in this regard are shocking. The vast majority of students – well in excess of 80 per cent – do not complete their degrees within the minimum time. About 50 per cent leave university without a qualification.
In an attempt to address this national challenge, Wits will revitalise its academic support programmes through the establishment of a teaching and learning academy, where struggling students will be identified early in their studies and provided with tutorial and other support interventions. In addition, we are reorganising our Centre for Learning, Teaching and Development to further professionalise our pedagogy.
Finally, in an effort to address inequality – the Achilles heel of South African society – Wits will introduce a new scholarship programme. Currently we have a vice-chancellor’s merit scholarship targeted at the top students in the country. Now we will introduce the vice-chancellor’s equality scholarship, to be targeted at the top students (merit is still retained) in the most marginalised and depressed schools in the country. We will also continue with our Targeting Talent programme, where we bring on to campus pupils from rural schools and provide deep-immersion preparation for university life. These initiatives are meant to strengthen hope and aspiration in a section of society where these qualities are sometimes fragile.
Yet global competitiveness is also integral to our agenda. In the coming months, Wits will recruit 30 scholars defined by South Africa’s National Research Foundation as being at the cutting edge of their disciplines globally. A number of multidisciplinary research institutes have already been or are in the process of being launched. Research productivity is to be revitalised with the introduction of incentives and penalties.
Wits will also increase its existing cohort of postdoctoral fellows by 100, and fund its postgraduate scholarships to the tune of R300 million (£19 million) over five years so as to significantly increase its postgraduate footprint.
By the end of the decade, Wits should be much more research-productive and postgraduate-oriented.
This set of measures is intended to create a more globally competitive yet nationally relevant and responsive Wits – mutually compatible goals. Not only will these measures be important for South Africa achieving its developmental potential, but they will also enable Wits to take its place as an equal partner at the heart of Africa in a global commons of 21st-century universities.
Adam Habib is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Witwatersrand.