ON occasion I have commented on South Africa’s higher education landscape – as an insider and, dare I say, as an outsider of sorts.
My occasional interest in our higher education landscape is premised on a somewhat deep understanding of the actual and latent role that higher education plays in developing economies and emerging democracies – both as a platform for the transmission and development of high-order knowledge, attitudes and skills and as an incubator of a critical consciousness.
However, the South African higher education sector is a bit complicated because of our peculiar history, complications that often curtail the sector’s execution of its legitimate mandate.
Writing in 2012 in one of my scientific publications, I teased out some of these complications when I observed that “South Africa’s education system remains unreformed and continues to perpetuate social injustice(s), especially in its higher education sector”.
I further noted that “the link between university education in South Africa and the politics of race and ethnicity as perpetuated by a succession of colonialism and apartheid ensured that over several centuries, university education in South Africa was an exclusive enterprise”.
A painful aspect of these complications is the fact that South Africa’s higher education sector continues to (re)produce the inequities of the past, oftentimes unwittingly.
Nothing highlights this more than a peculiar brand of confounding rhetoric that has become stock in trade for every new vice-chancellor appointed by South Africa’s leading public universities.
A sample of this rhetoric was in a University of the Witwatersrand advertisement carried in the Mail & Guardian of August 30-September 5 2013.
In the advertisement, the newly appointed vice-chancellor of Wits – as this premier South African university at the heart of Johannesburg is affectionately referred to – Professor Adam Habib is quoted as saying he is “ready to engage robustly in the global war for the very best academic talent”.
I will not begrudge the good professor for having such ambitions for his institution, the war imagery notwithstanding.
The advertisement went on to state that “under the vibrant leadership of Adam Habib, Wits is re-energising and augmenting its research character. It is recruiting the finest minds for its postdocs and postgrads, establishing new research institutes and strengthening international linkages especially in Africa”.
Admittedly, these are noble pursuits and they should be commended and supported.
However, the advertisement did not stop at these.
It further stated that “to fully realise this agenda, Wits will also appoint 30 additional leading scholars (NRF A-rated or equivalent) to join our many celebrated fields of study”.
It is this last bit that had me thinking and which led me to characterise this kind of discourse emanating from South Africa’s thought leaders as “confounding rhetoric” fundamentally because it either glosses over or completely ignores fundamental aspects of what is a deeply skewed knowledge labour market.
To understand my argument, it is important to take my readers into the confidence of the National Research Foundation (NRF) rating system, as elaborated in NRF policy documents.
Under this system, A-rated researchers are leading international researchers who are unequivocally recognised by their peers as leading international scholars in their field for the high quality and impact of their recent research outputs.
B-rated researchers are internationally acclaimed researchers who enjoy considerable international recognition by their peers for the high quality of their recent research outputs.
C-rated researchers on their part are established researchers with a sustained recent record of productivity in the field who are recognised by their peers as having a body of quality work, the core of which has coherence and attests to ongoing engagement with the field as well as the ability to conceptualise problems and apply research methods to investigating them.
The so-called A-rated research scientists – that the good professor at the helm at Wits wants to attract, let alone retain – are a rare breed, especially on our shores, and not for lack of trying to attract or develop them.
For long periods of time, South African academe, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, pursued “value-free” research that did not seek to challenge or disrupt the status quo especially in the so-called previously Afrikaans universities.
Oftentimes, the net result of this uncritical and apologetic approach to the critical questions of the day led to an insular approach in which preoccupation with mundane and egoistical ventures often disguised as intellectual and research pursuits held sway.
Considering the time it takes to train a researcher, let alone for one thus trained to curve a niche as a leading international researcher who is “unequivocally recognised by peers as a leading international scholar in their field for the high quality and impact of their recent research outputs”, it starts becoming apparent why the rhetoric emanating from Wits is a bit confounding.
Rather than seeking to recruit A-rated scholars – assuming one will get them in the numbers required and whether they will be willing to relocate to Wits – what the good professor should be focusing on is the development of research talent at his institution so that unrated researchers can get some form of rating from the NRF.
He could also invest some thought and resources in ensuring the rated researchers in his employ retain their ratings as well as up-scaling their NRF ratings.
While at it, he could also invest some thought on how his elite institution could help fix the broken South African (basic) education system, for where does he imagine home-grown A-rated researchers should ultimately come from?
I will answer the good professor in this space next week.
- Dr Munene Mwaniki is a senior lecturer/researcher at the University of the Free State. You can follow him on Twitter @munenemwaniki.