Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

When university resources are scarce, building and sustaining equitable research excellence should be paramount

By Robin Drennan, Joao Rodrigues, Garth Stevens & Imraan Valodia  18 August 2020

File photo: University of Cape Town graduates. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the emergence of successful solutions to the unprecedented levels of uncertainty and disequilibrium created in our society and in our economy, will depend largely on our ability to harness capabilities in scientific research – be that in the traditional sciences, the health sciences or the social and economic sciences. It is scientific research in its broadest possible sense that can help to explore the new frontiers of vaccinology to counter the impact of the virus, to consider how best to stimulate an ailing economy, and how to manage the deep psychosocial effects and pre-existing social ills that Covid-19 has both caused and exposed. 

Moreover, as the digital transformation gathers pace, our ability to remain within global science networks will be more critical than ever before. If we are to succeed as a society we need science and scientific research, and we need it to be robustly engaged with, interrogated, questioned, applied and embedded in social life. For this, we need to be constantly thinking about how we nurture both an enabling environment and a new layer of critical and creative thinkers of tomorrow, who will drive such scientific research and knowledge production. And, as our fiscal consolidation takes effect, and resources become more and more constrained, the efficiency with which we use scarce funding for science is more imperative than ever.

The key actor in our scientific community is the higher education sector. A large proportion of university-based research, and indeed some of the most cutting edge thinking, is conducted by postgraduate students under the supervision and in collaboration with academic staff. Research and critical thinking skills are acquired and honed in the cut and thrust of practice under the close and supportive watch of, and in partnerships with, academic staff. In addition, this is a site where emerging scholars are exposed to processes of quality assurance, peer review, critique and the social value of research – all of which contribute to research and human capacity development, high-quality research, and the possibilities of science and knowledge acting in the service of the public good. 

Unfortunately, the National Research Foundation (NRF), the primary funding agency of the National Department of Science and Innovation (the DSI), has recently shifted the emphasis of its programme for the financial support of postgraduate students, having “phased outthe grant-holder linked modalities of funding postgraduate students in 2020” (NRF (HCD), 2020). “Grant-holder” linked bursaries are the bursaries that academic staff, who have been awarded an NRF research grant, can award to their students to support the research. However, from 2021 onwards this collaborative, capacitating and supportive method used by the NRF since its inception in 1998 for funding the student-staff research partnership, has effectively been moth-balled. 

This action poses two important constraints on the research and postgraduate student training. First, it closes off the space for field development and advancement by academic staff who would normally have used this mechanism to identify promising students to work alongside them and to grow both the human capacities and expertise, as well as a specific field of inquiry.

If we sacrifice equity for quality research, we run the risk of reproducing skewed forms of knowledge production and institutional capacities. If we disinvest from productive sites of research and knowledge generation, simply to enact seemingly new distributional regimes, we do not attenuate the skills differentials that exist across institutions in South Africa and we undermine existing research strengths.

Second, and perhaps more worrying from a capacitation and transformation perspective, is the separation of the funding of the operating costs for the research and the bursary costs for the student. The net effect of this separation is that it is likely to weaken institutional and postgraduate capacity for innovative research that requires funding, even though it may seemingly broaden access. Separating these costs structures is perhaps courting failure for the postgraduate research capacitation pipeline and will have significant ramifications for research development in South Africa in the long term. 

So why has this step been taken? Part of this is clearly connected to the raft of changes to attenuate the budgetary reductions that the NRF itself has had to endure, given the background effects of Covid-19 on state spending. But in addition and according to the “Application and Funding Framework for NRF Postgraduate Student Funding for the 2021 Academic Year”, the NRF is more deliberately pursuing “funding allocations [that are to] be underpinned by the principles of equity of opportunity; representivity; prioritisation; and enhanced access, success and throughput”. These principles arise specifically from the implementation of the NRF mandate and the “Transformation Framework that identifies the specific need to focus on transformation of the equity profiles of the South African research workforce”. 

Clearly, transformation is an important social imperative and principle that must drive corrective action to attend to historical inequities, and is vital for the future of South Africa. Our society grapples with the challenges of quality and equity on a daily basis, but it is important that addressing these issues does not become a binary choice or a trade-off between the two principles. Indeed, these two principles of equity and quality are integral, and we should insist on both being pursued simultaneously.

If we sacrifice equity for quality research, we run the risk of reproducing skewed forms of knowledge production and institutional capacities. If we disinvest from productive sites of research and knowledge generation, simply to enact seemingly new distributional regimes, we do not attenuate the skills differentials that exist across institutions in South Africa and we undermine existing research strengths. We have to recognise that the 26 universities in South Africa are differentiated, even if this is not specifically by design today. Indeed, the Executive Summary of the National Development Plan notes that the “performance of existing [higher education] institutions ranges from world-class to mediocre”. With the necessary resources we could raise the standard of all our institutions, but in a constrained fiscal environment, we must utilise the limited resources prudently and in ways that play to existing research expertise and address issues of equity. 

The requirements that all prospective students, for example, apply online and are treated entirely equally in their applications, is at face value a given tenet of transformation practice, but may have unintended and perverse consequences if considered purely on its own. 

Students receiving bursaries to pursue research training at universities that are not research-intensive may be limited in their own development, and this does not in and of itself address the skills challenges at historically under-resourced universities. What is perhaps required is a different compact – a new set of knowledge and institutional architectures where funding agencies such as the NRF open access through its transformation lenses, but also simultaneously encourage partnerships between institutions that are more research-intensive and those who are historically under-resourced. In this model, students from all institutions would benefit from the funding allocations, but inter-institutional arrangements where research-intensive universities are coupled with institutions that have been historically under-resourced should be encouraged to develop excellence across an unevenly differentiated system. 

During these times of reduced funding due to the demands of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is crucial that our limited resources are used as judiciously and efficiently as possible. Any funding strategy should take into account equity, existing research and knowledge infrastructures that we could optimise even further, capacitating an unevenly differentiated higher education sector, and encourage innovations to the local and global challenges that science, research and knowledge production could be responsive to. DM/MC

Robin Drennan is the Director of Research, Joao Rodrigues is the Acting DVC Research, Garth Stevens is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Imraan Valodia is the Dean of Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management. All of them at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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