The looming crisis in academia

Belinda Bozzoli says that of the 17 800 permanent academic staff at Universities almost half are over the age of 50

The “academic cliff” looms, with no solution in sight: New DHET plan misses the mark

Universities face a serious crisis in the very near future – a crisis of staffing. We hear talk of a “fiscal cliff” and a “coal cliff”. Well the “’academic cliff”’ awaits us. Of the 17800 permanent academic staff at Universities almost half are over the age of 50 and a significant number will retire within five years. This crisis has been misinterpreted by many as a crisis of what some refer to by the semi-evangelistic term “’transformation”’. Universities, it is said, have neglected to “transform” themselves – and in this case it means changing the composition of their staff racially - and have thus fallen short of what is expected of all institutions in South Africa today.

But in fact the word “transformation” fails utterly to capture the depth of the problem of University staffing. The meaningless and authoritarian word, which can mean what you want it to mean, in this case carries the implication that there has been some sort of conspiracy, racial gatekeeping or politically incorrect neglect by universities. The structural underpinnings of universities as institutions are entirely overlooked. They deserve closer attention as they reveal why it is that changing the profile of University staff has been and will continue to be a decades-long process which needs nuanced understanding.

The government has, over the past 20 years, more than doubled the size of the student population. It changed the face of the student cohort by making available a greater number of student places; demography and political pressure ensured that those new places were nearly all filled by black students. Thus the number of white students at universities has hardly changed since 1994 – while the number of black students at universities has quintupled. In this case “transformation” was achieved through growth.

But the rise in student numbers from 480,000 to 980,000 has not been matched by staff increases. Here ‘Transformation through growth” was impossible for two reasons: first, changing the composition of senior staff at universities cannot be achieved simply by appointing new young lecturers. Some sort of importing of older, highly qualified and research-active people is necessary. And second, there was proportionally very little growth to speak of. In the same period - 1994-2014 - permanent academic staff positions have only gone up from 12800 to 17800.

Thus the system only provided some 5000 new permanent staff for 500,000 new students! This has seriously affected teaching quality and the academic profession itself. The ratio of permanent staff to student numbers has shot up from 39 in 1994 – considered at the time to be a worryingly high number – to a staggering 55 in 2014. This must make ours one of the most ‘’massified’’ university systems in the world and has created very unpleasant working conditions for staff. To attain even the very modest staff student ratios of 1994 the number of new permanent staff should have been at least eleven thousand – doubling the permanent staff to match the doubling of the students. Government has grossly neglected the staffing of Universities.

A second problem lies in government’s habit of “transforming on the cheap’’. For all its rhetoric since 1994, never has it been committed to actually producing a new generation of academics by investing money, even in times when money was relatively plentiful. We know that in many domains changing the racial profile of institutions has consisted simply of placing black people, whatever their qualifications and capabilities or even field of expertise, into jobs formerly held by white people (in many cases following the forced or induced departure of the latter) and calling that “transformation’’. Disastrous outcomes have been documented in every sphere of society.

Universities have proven relatively resilient to this cheapskate tactic except in the most blatantly transformation-obsessed cases. Perhaps their meritocratic structures and their relative autonomy from government have protected them from the worst. But not entirely so: there are universities today where Vice-Chancellors struggle to boast of a decent publication and Deans lack authority because most of those they oversee are better qualified than they are.

Other countries with similar challenges have not been nearly so mean, so parochial or so arrogant! They instead offer us impressive examples of serious, large scale state investment in changing the face of Universities. China is one example, and at the other end of the scale, our neighbour Botswana is another. Whereas here almost nothing was spent by our government on creating a new, well-educated cohort of potential black academics, in China and Botswana and many others, right from the get-go, promising young graduates were given immense opportunities to further themselves.

State funded posts placed them in local Universities; and state funded scholarships sent them to study at top universities in the UK and elsewhere. They were guaranteed jobs, accommodation and additional support upon their return. These schemes have by and large worked well. Within 20 years in both cases a confident, well educated workforce with international networks and standing, had emerged in Universities ready and able to compete with the best.

Here the only institutions that did fund the education and development of young black academics were the much maligned Universities themselves, the meagrely funded National Research Foundation, or philanthropic funders such as the Ford Foundation, Carnegie and Mellon. The effect of their schemes has been significant but small. For all Kader Asmal’s boasting about his reconfiguring the system, this was a shocking omission on the previous Department of Education’s part.

And now, we have a new Department of Higher Education and Training scheme which ostensibly addresses this. Presented in Parliament this week, it aims to place 600 postgraduate students per year in 6-year junior academic positions to bring them to the required level over the next five to ten years. While it is a welcome development the Department has made some extravagant claims for it, while in fact there are some worrying features.

The first concern is that the scheme promises far more than it is likely to be able to deliver. Similar schemes managed by the NRF et al have found it difficult to recruit young potential black academics even in small numbers; while retaining them has proved almost impossible. As soon as they qualify they are highly attractive prospects for industry and government. Black PhDs are gold, goes the saying. After eight to ten years of study, the attraction of a long, poorly paid slog of building an academic career over another twenty years, by which time you may or may not become a Professor, rapidly fades in the face of lucrative offers, usually with ready-made seniority, elsewhere.

But secondly the new scheme’s funding is extremely unclear and uncertain. There is no guaranteed funding, and certainly no separately voted pot of money for this scheme. Why not? When the NRF put forward its massive Chairs programme, which is designed to attract brilliant middle and upper level scholars into the Universities, to train students and promote excellence in research, substantial block grants were made available for it by Treasury over periods of five to ten years. These grants have been renewed, moreover, recently. The obtaining of these substantial grants must partly be attributed to the energetic lobbying of Ministers of Science and Technology over the years. Has Minister Nzimande failed to engage in similar persuasive tactics? One suspects this to be the case.

So far, therefore, the much vaunted new scheme depends upon redirected funds from other Higher Education programmes. This is shameful, and is hardly a sustainable approach. Will sufficient redirected funds be available as the compounding of the costs takes place over the six years, with 2400 staff envisaged per year once it is fully developed? This is highly implausible. Higher Education is already notoriously short of funds, to the point where salaries and student support are at critical lows. What explosive tensions will result if and when funding needs to be taken from these items?

The scheme also, in effect, weakens University autonomy. It provides a route through which the Department is able to influence academic appointments by creating this separate pot of redirected funds, attractive to Universities which are desperate for staff, but specifying racial requirements in its use. We can be sure that the Department is fully aware of this and possibly even relishes it. While presenting the scheme the Director-General Gwebs Qonde muttered dark warnings to any Universities which “made excuses’’; it can be predicted that this will mean that any university which suggests that one of the recipients of these grants might not be performing adequately will receive a lecture from the Department about being anti-transformation and considerable pressure not to do anything about it.

Because the scheme is funded from existing budgets rather than new money, after the 6 years are over universities will have to absorb these young people using posts they already have; the scheme will not therefore address the staff shortage problems in the end and in fact its success depends upon the idea that the absolute number of posts will be expanding in the next few years. This is a risky assumption given the scale of the project, the state of the national budget, and the predisposition of the DHET to starve Universities of core funding. Until the scheme is properly and sustainably funded, university salaries are addressed, and the staff-student ratio falls to an acceptable level, schemes such as this one will struggle to succeed, in spite of the good intentions behind them.

And even if all this is done, the scheme will not assist with the academic “cliff” because it is focussed on young, new entrants into the system. Thus it entirely fails to address the problem of the high proportion of older academics and their pending retirement.

It is in the very nature of the academic career that the longer you have been in your position the greater the range and depth of research and sheer standing you have in your discipline. Most of the research in universities is being done by older academics, and the base of this research will collapse if responsibility for it is handed over to 25 year olds at the beginning of their career.

The few universities we have that appear in international rankings risk a dramatic fall. Their already tenuous standing internationally is at risk if drastic steps are not taken to bring into the university system a cohort of middle level, rather than junior, academics, already established in their careers and able to take the reins of research productivity. The National Research Foundation’s excellent Chairs programme fulfils this function to a degree, bringing in top level academics, often from elsewhere, to set up imaginative and wide-ranging research programmes. But ultimately the core Department which funds Higher Education needs to look seriously at this question and treat it imaginatively. But here the scheme signals to us the deep parochialism of the Ministry.

It envisages no formal training of these young candidates at international universities, an essential way of bringing into our system the latest and most cutting edge ideas available world-wide. But the very name ‘”university’’ implies a degree of universalism which the DHET is only vaguely aware of, and in every university in the world internationalisation is an integral part of its activities. Here we have a Department, a Minister and an ANC-dominated culture all of which are inward=looking and provincial.

The only logical way to go is to fund the scheme properly and in addition to induce, persuade and pay top international academics in the mid-range age group of 40-50 to come into the system to see it through to the point where the next generation is ready to take over. But the very idea of bringing in international staff to fill the gap of senior staff appears not to be even vaguely on the DHET agenda.

Maybe Minister Nzimande would be persuaded if he knew a bit more about the Chinese example, which is certainly one to emulate here.

Belinda Bozzoli is DA Shadow Minister of Higher Education and Training.