Varsities can bridge research inequality

THE recent ranking of South African universities in the Times Higher Education’s Brics and emerging market analysis, in which two feature in the top 10, bears testament to the high quality of research emanating from SA.

From discoveries such as Homo naledi and the world’s first penile transplant, to advances made in HIV/ AIDS research and changing how we think about one another and our society, SA is at the forefront of research and discovery. No longer are countries in the developing world merely looked upon as data-collection hubs, wellsprings of material waiting to be analysed or footnotes in north-south collaboration projects.

We are world-class generators and producers of new knowledge, successfully accessing and managing resources and relationships in the global knowledge economy. And we are developing high-level, scarce skills off our own bat.

We cannot reinforce the inequality by allowing knowledge production to occur only in better-resourced countries. There are many successful examples where we took the lead on global issues — researchers from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and others who were instrumental in leading and advising on public health issues related to Ebola in several African countries, provide a good example in this regard.

Research-intensive universities in SA have improved in most global rankings. Our research output as a country is at one of its highest levels to date. At Wits, research has grown 32% in two years, a substantial increase. However, we run the risk of losing our global competitiveness if universities and research institutions are not adequately resourced.

We have the potential to become a regional science hub in the context of Brics (the Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA group of nations) if we fund our research institutions sufficiently. The world-class SKA project, research into water undertaken by the CSIR and the world-class nuclear research expertise at iThemba LABS prove that we are punching above our weight.

There is no question that universities have a dual role to play in society — to be globally competitive and nationally responsive. There is a need for them to be recapitalised in the short term, so that we can continue to develop high-level skills to foster effective change, while working towards solving the complex challenges of the 21st century.

This is a national imperative and we — the private and public sectors, high net worth individuals and academia — must find new resources to ensure that universities and research institutions remain at the forefront.

The National Development Plan calls on universities to build the talent pipeline and to increase the number of PhD graduates from 1,500 per year to 6,000 by 2030. If we are to accelerate development on our continent and be at the cutting edge of knowledge production in the world, we need to fast-track the pace at which we produce high-quality Masters and doctoral graduates.

There is a need for expanded access to higher education, better-equipped research facilities, more further education and training colleges and additional collaboration across disciplines, institutions and sectors.

The costs of running universities are affected by a number of factors including the rand-dollar exchange rate. In 2014-15, the rand declined about 22%, which resulted in a substantial increase in the amount of money that universities had to pay for library books, journals, electronic resources and research equipment procured in dollars and euros.

Any cuts in the salaries of staff will result in universities not attracting the best talent. A reduction in student support such as bursaries, scholarships and financial aid will lead to the exclusion of talented students. The net effect would be the decline of the quality of education, which will ultimately affect the development of SA and the rest of Africa.

If we do not act now, we will be mere producers of raw scientific data, which others would call “scientific colonialism”.

• Prof Vilakazi is deputy vice-chancellor: research at Wits University



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