The higher education sector is in a season of change. This is an uncomfortable time as we grapple with questions such as how institutions will be funded, whether higher education can be provided free to all students, and what decolonised education really looks like for different disciplines. Despite the feelings of uncertainty these questions may ignite, I believe this season also presents an opportunity to consider how we as a nation can use transformation to expand the platform of excellence we have built in our universities. By MAMOKGETHI PHAKENG.
It is time for us to think differently about the excellent research that comes out of South Africa and how we can ensure that it is sustainable. One obvious question is: “Why change or think differently when things have been so successful?” We have research-intensive universities that already score highly in international ranking systems, for instance; our researchers already collaborate with colleagues in reputable institutions across the globe and some are regarded as global leaders in their fields of study. But there is no guarantee that what made us excellent yesterday will make us excellent tomorrow. To continue in our trajectory of excellence requires the keen ability to manage change and master adaptability.
Another reason why it’s important to talk about excellence is that excellence is not innocent and always has a context, especially in a country such as ours, with a history of discrimination and oppression. There are places where someone like me – an African woman – will never be excellent, no matter how hard I work, simply because the only way to be excellent in that context is to move away from who one is. We need to celebrate all kinds of excellence, the many ways we rise, our skill at thriving and surviving, despite our difficult past. Excellence, when it is defined too rigidly, leaves us valuing certain stories over others: assimilating instead of reaching towards newer and better ways of being.
There is a narrative that argues that there is a trade-off between excellence and transformation: the belief that inherent in the idea of transformation is a lowering of standards to allow, for instance, more women and black Africans up the professorial rank, without letting them be measured against objective standards. We need to challenge the view that we cannot deal with issues of equity, transformation and capacity development at the same time as we encourage, pursue and recognise excellence.
Transformation and excellence are mutually supporting: excellence proves the value of a more diverse academic community, while transformation of that community ensures that high standards of excellence will be sustainable over the long term. Historically, high levels of research productivity at the University of Cape Town, and our impact in addressing pressing social, scientific and health issues, put the institution on a footing with the world’s leading institutions. The pursuit of transformation along with excellence will ensure that we keep that status and even improve, because of the diversity of thought, background and understanding transformation will bring.
What we need to change is not just the race and gender of our academics and researchers, but also how we measure research performance. Transformation cannot be only about filling a certain demographic quota. It must also be about how those individuals are supported to contribute to research and education. It is important that institutions do not only get excited about the number of outputs produced; we also must ask difficult questions about who is producing the outputs. We need to examine and acknowledge the productivity of our black and women researchers: what papers are they publishing, and where? At what age do they begin publishing? What research collaborations do they contribute to? This is something I am asking UCT to begin measuring. Our success in transformation should not stop at recruiting black African and women researchers, but it must proceed to ensuring that they get the required support to succeed, so that they can provide role models for a younger, even more diverse generation of postgraduates to follow.
This needs to be a national priority. My vision as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research at UCT is to ensure sustainable excellence in our institution’s research performance. To do so I am promoting a Framework for Excellence that examines not only the traditional areas of research productivity and impact, but also transformation and sustainability. Transformation factors to consider include the focus and local relevance of our research; who is producing the outputs and inventions; who is rated by the National Research Foundation; and the throughput of black South African postgraduate students. Sustainability looks into the quality of Master’s and PhD graduates and their outputs; the productivity of postdoctorates, emerging and young researchers; the retention of black South Africans in the higher education and research sector, and the financial and environmental factors that affect their decision to stay in the sector or leave. We are also examining how we can attract and support top-class black South Africans to take up postgraduate study with us.
More than resources, excellence requires the right philosophy: a commitment to transformation; a willingness to identify strengths and opportunities that may mean difficult choices as part of our research strategy. Excellence also requires a willingness to work to build up the right conditions and practices over many years.
Excellence doesn’t develop on its own. It requires nurturing and resources. And that is why supporting capacity-building, especially for black South African women researchers, is so important. South Africa’s economic development depends on strong national research capacity and excellence to create and build new income-generating sectors. This includes creating an enabling environment to conduct research that can contribute to society and the improvement of the lives of people; and to create a sustainable future that attracts researchers from other countries as well as emerging researchers. DM
Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation at the University of Cape Town.
Photo: Students engage in a protest meeting on the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus under the banner #FeesMustFall, Cape Town, South Africa, 20 September 2016. EPA/NIC BOTHMA
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