South Africa’s universities risk becoming bureaucratic degree factories

Universities are losing sight of their role as places of teaching and learning. Instead, they are becoming hugely stressed business enterprises. Shutterstock

Universities around the world have become stressed business enterprises. Funding considerations now dominate institutional strategy. This commercialisation is often driven by falling government subsidies and funding pressures.

South African universities have tried to cover the declining government income by raising the only other major funding source they have control over – student fees. The result of that attempted balancing act? Probably the biggest student protest action the country has seen since it became a democracy in 1994.

Students decried not only the proposed increases but the idea of paying for university at all, organising themselves under the banner of “Fees must fall”. But this is unsustainable without massive government funding.

On closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the way the government structures its tertiary funding is actually the source of many of the deeper troubles in the sector. These incentives have been a major factor in making South African higher education mediocre. They have also eroded academic leadership at universities.

The rise of ‘degree factories’

The government’s subsidy to universities is, to a large extent, regulated by two parameters: student degree completion and “research output”. In both instances it is quantity rather than quality that determines the amount of money a university receives from government.

Research subsidies are in essence proportional to the sum of articles in accredited journals multiplied by the fraction of authors from that institution. The annual number of graduations – which in itself is determined by how quickly students complete their studies – is the crucial parameter determining the teaching subsidy.

Unfortunately this has repositioned some programs at institutions of higher learning into little more than degree factories and producers of irrelevant, poorly researched junk articles. This is the natural outcome of the imperative to balance the books.

There are problems at the basic level of teaching and learning, too. Each year the National Benchmark Tests highlight just how badly prepared most incoming university students are. This is the result of 12 years of sub-standard teaching in most South African schools.

As a lecturer I can attest that my colleagues and I have a problem with too many students’ work ethos. Absenteeism, lateness and inattentiveness in class are common, leaving lecturers constantly frustrated. All these factors, and the results of the benchmark tests, suggest that failure rates will be high.

But university managements demand and get far higher pass rates than you’d expect, though these still fall short of international averages. To meet these expectations, many lecturers simplify their courses, frequently promoting practices like “spotting” – encouraging students to guess which questions may be asked and to focus their study efforts on these – and rote learning. Where is the room for critical thought in this equation?

Academics as bureaucrats

There’s been a major push by universities to encourage research production. Through incentives and performance pressure all South African universities have achieved massive growth in the number of papers published. For example, my institution, the University of Johannesburg, almost doubled its research output between 2009 and 2013.

Too often, however, academics are being forced to compromise quality to produce what’s expected of them. Research that could be published in a single high impact journal is being chopped into pieces to produce more – rather than better – articles.

Worst of all, academics have allowed themselves to be relegated to a functional mechanical role. They manage their station on the conveyor belt to graduation, but seldom fulfil their intellectual leadership function.

It is telling how often universities, supposedly the traditional repositories of supreme intellect and knowledge, engage outside and only moderately qualified consultants to provide basic advice. The skills and intellect in their midst are neither tapped nor appreciated.

It appears that academics have simply not been sufficiently assertive and have been content with their role as a cog in the machine that is the modern South African university. Instead, they revert to the role of armchair critics, reacting to events that are unfolding rather than crafting ideas themselves that take society forward.

The ideal is for the thinkers at universities to formulate, analyse and drive societal progress and evolution. Too often today this role is being delegated to apparatchiks with their bulleted Powerpoint slides shuffled between meal breaks at overpriced conference centres.

A crucial pillar

Realistically, we can’t insist on a quality academic project, reject managerialism and mediocrity without a dramatic boost to higher education funding.

South Africa must recognise universities as a strong asset with a massive potential to solve developmental problems. They are not degree mills that need to be kept in perpetual anxiety about their financial viability.

It is crucial, therefore, that freezing or decreasing of fees in the wake of student protests doesn’t lead to reduced spending on academia. Instead, we need to regenerate this currently depressed but critical pillar of society.