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Today for Tomorrow!

Marake M Morapeli Annual Lecture Prof Adam HabibProf Adam Habib

Studietrust Conference, Thursday, 2 October 2014 at 09:15
School of Tourism and Hospitality, the Kerzner Building, University of Johannesburg
University of Johannesburg
Professor Adam Habib

Programme Director, the National Director of the Studietrust, Dr Murray, Members of Board, Staff and Alumni of the Studietrust, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Comrades. Allow me to express my sincere appreciation to Dr Murray Hofmeyr and his team for inviting me to deliver the annual Marake Morapeli Lecture today, on the occasion of Studietrust’s 40th birthday celebration. It is indeed an honour and a privilege to do so.

This event is of particular significance, as in the spirit of Marake Morapeli, it showcases the achievements of a remarkable group of students drawn from disadvantaged and impoverished backgrounds, who having been given an opportunity by the Studietrust, are committed to improving their economic and social circumstances. It also provides a platform for an engagement on important issues that affect our society today, namely the provision of quality university education and the appropriate support required for success, so that our students can become effective and productive corporate and social citizens.

My focus today will be on the leadership and management contexts of universities in South Africa, more especially how Wits is being repositioned as a globally competitive but simultaneously, locally relevant institution. Although there has been significant changes implemented and massive state intervention in the last 20 years, South African higher education post-democracy, appears to be lagging behind its counterparts in other developing countries, in terms education and scholarship.  This is due in part to overall poor performance, like participation rates of around 17%, throughput rates of which the national average is around 20%, low national research output, low number of academics with PhDs, and the low number of PhDs produced per capita, when compared to other developing countries, like Brazil, for instance.

Our higher education system is depicted as being medium knowledge-producing and differentiated, with low participation and high attrition rates, insufficient capacity for adequate skills production and a small 'chronic in crisis' sub-sector, marred by poor governance and some bad leadership and management. In this scenario some may argue and perhaps justifiably so, that the South African universities are not responsive and relevant to the economic and societal needs of our Country. With more vocalised demands for increased public resources from other sectors in the economy such as health, we are witnessing rising and sustained pressure from a multiplicity of stakeholders, for greater efficiency and effectiveness, at universities. This is occurring in a context of complexity, change and dwindling resources.

There is no doubt in my mind that leading and managing any university is a challenging task, today. But undertaking this responsibility in the developing world is an even more onerous one, since the contextual challenges tend to be more acute and the systemic environment, more complex. Structural poverty and inequality in developmental societies seeps across institutional boundaries and forces the university’s executive to confront and address local problems such as students who cannot afford to eat and who battle to find accommodation. This has been our experience too. Systemic disparities in education means that limited state budgets get directed at primary and secondary education, with the result that underfunding in higher education is perpetuated. And in a world where science and higher education have no national boundaries, addressing these challenges while still pursuing globally competitive university education and research, requires hard trade-offs that are not simply managerial and strategic, but also ethical and moral.

In one sense Wits, is an institution that is blessed. Like its host country, it reflects multiple social realities within its precincts.  It has world class infrastructure and a balance sheet that most African universities can only aspire to. Yet this budget, while large by African standards, is miniscule compared to its international peers, and seen against its own institutional ambitions. Moreover, while the university can boast some world class scientists, research and teaching footprints, it still faces and has to manage basic problems of higher education, in a complex, developmental frame, like South Africa.

It constantly has to balance the imperatives of building a globally competitive university with the demands of being nationally responsive. Thankfully these need not be mutually exclusive goals. There are some, of course, who hold that to be world class requires eschewing the national. In this view, to be world class means simply to imitate the foreign. Wits, by contrast, holds as a principle that it is precisely in responding to the national context that an institution can become globally competitive. It is the responsiveness to one’s contextual specificities that enhances a university’s ability to make unique contributions to the global corpus of knowledge. To use two Wits examples namely deep level mining engineering and palaeontology, both globally competitive institutional strengths which required, and were enabled by, a responsiveness to our national challenges and endowments.  

A second principle informing our plans going forward is a more globally recognised and common one that is, world class universities are built by great academics, who are given financial resources and an enabling environment, within which to operate. Both goals national responsiveness and global competitiveness will define our agenda in the years ahead. National responsiveness is reflected in our deep commitment to be a nationally diverse and racially integrated institution. Wits currently is the most demographically representative of South Africa’s research intensive universities. Yet we are also mindful of the importance to retain our cosmopolitan character both in national and racial terms, without explicit or implicit racial quotas.

National responsiveness is also reflected in a rejuvenated attempt to address throughput. South Africa’s statistics in this regard are shocking. The vast majority of students well in excess of 80%, do not complete their degrees within the minimum time. About 50% of students leave university without a qualification. In an institutional attempt to address this national challenge, Wits is revitalising its academic support programs and throughput capacity through the establishment of a teaching and learning academy where struggling students are identified early in their studies and provided with tutorial and other support interventions. In addition we are reorganising our Centre for Learning and Teaching Development (CLTD), so as to further professionalise teaching among our academics.

In an effort to address inequality, the Achilles heel of South African society, Wits has implemented a new scholarship program. Currently Wits has a Vice Chancellor’s merit scholarship which is targeted at the top students in the country and which ensures that their studies will be fully funded. Now, we have introduced the Vice Chancellors equality scholarship targeted at the top students in quintile one and two schools, those that are the most marginalised and depressed in the country. Ten students from these schools, have been given a similar fully funded scholarship this year, which has ensured that these talented young people from economically marginalised communities, also gain access to quality education at Wits. We are also continuing the Targeting Talent program where we bring onto campus grades ten, eleven and twelve scholars from rural schools for a winter school that provides deep-immersion preparation for university life. These two initiatives are directly targeted at inequality and are meant to strengthen hope and aspiration in a section of society, where these qualities are sometimes fragile.

Nowadays there are two compatible sets of principles that should govern the executive and strategic operations of South African universities.

The first, found in the preamble of our constitution, demands that we simultaneously address the historical disparities bequeathed by Apartheid, and build a collective national identity. The second, written in the manifesto and architecture of any great university, is the imperative to be both nationally responsive and cosmopolitan. Managing the balance between these competing imperatives is a real challenge that confronts executives in South Africa’s universities. This complex agenda must also inform our ideas on how to approach student enrolment in our institutions.

Managing these competing imperatives has spawned two distinct approaches to student enrolment at universities: multiculturalism and non-racialism. The former is a practice where some institutions view racial and cultural groups as homogenous and plan the enrolment of these groups as distinct entities. At the most basic level this entails enforced implicit or explicit quotas, often with an intention to retain a historical racial or cultural character.
At its most notorious level, this approach is reflected in the university adopting a principle of racial federalism in which specific campuses represent distinct racial and cultural interests.

The non-racial approach, by contrast, rejects cultural homogeneity and believes in constructing an organisational space in which new national identities are built. Students from a variety of racial, religious and cultural backgrounds are enrolled as individuals, and the university is organised to enable constant intermingling and reciprocal engagement of these individuals. This approach holds that through these processes, students come to interact with each other as individuals and not as representatives of racial or cultural entities.

Wits is firmly ensconced in this non-racial tradition as it speaks to the spirit of our constitution. It is one of the more racially integrated research institutions in the country with just over 70% of our students black, and just under 30% white. Of the black students, about 55% are African. This non-racial setting not only reflects an appropriate balance between the competing imperatives of historical redress and cosmopolitanism, but it also creates a foundation that prepares our graduates to thrive in the non-racial work environment of the 21st century. This non-racialism is also reflected in our sought after programmes, like Medicine and Actuarial Sciences, with no adverse impact on efficiencies. For instance, Actuarial Sciences at Wits produces about 46% of the country’s graduates even though it has only 20% of the country’s student enrolment.

Yet despite our successes in both Actuarial Sciences and Medicine, our enrolment strategies in both have been different. In Medicine, there is an admission point score for grades, based on matric results, the national benchmark test and a measure for social engagement and disadvantage, determined from answers to a biographical questionnaire. Students from different racial backgrounds are required to achieve different score thresholds to qualify for admittance into the program. Race is therefore used but as one among other variables. In Actuarial Sciences, no such arrangement exists. Students compete on an equal basis, on the basis of their academic results.

The only facilitative measure for black students is a scholarship program offered by the Actuarial Society.

So which approach is more appropriate for our circumstances?

Many insist on the necessity of race to determine disadvantage. But the danger with differential requirements for distinct groups is that while it enables historical redress, it simultaneously runs the risk of undermining the constitutional goal of building a new national identity. This is because young white students feel that they are being asked to pay for the sins of their parents. Moreover, it also has the perverse consequence that privileged black students, the children of the BEE barons and the politically connected, are put on an equal footing with the most disadvantaged within the community.

An alternative approach to addressing historical racial disparities without compromising the building of a national identity is to use criteria other than race in enrolment strategies. In this scenario the Wit’s medical programme would be required to elevate in its admissions process, the importance of variables currently prioritized by its biographical questionnaire. This then begs the question whether academic results should simply be used as a basis for entry into medicine.

Should we not for instance advantage those who speak multiple languages because of the necessity of doctors to communicate with their patients? Given the need for medical practitioners in the rural areas, should we not prioritise applications from rural areas in the selection process? Or, as has been often argued, should we not use material criteria as a basis for advantage; students from materially deprived environments, whatever their racial background, would be offered priority access.

Given the overlap between race and class in South Africa, the vast majority of beneficiaries in this approach would be black. Most of the other indicators would also serve as proxies for addressing our racial disparities. But the advantage of this approach is that it would not compromise our attempts to simultaneously rebuild a non-racial identity.

It is because of this that we established a Task Team at Wits on an admissions policy in our undergraduate medical programme that simultaneously addresses the essential but competing priorities, enshrined within the preamble of our constitution. The new admissions policy developed by the Task Team has been approved by our University Council will be implemented in 2015. This is an important step for Wits as it undoubtedly will lead to a reconceptualization and implementation of admissions criteria in future, which is relevant and responsive to the needs the political, economic and social needs of our nation, especially in the health sector.

It also signals our commitment to addressing the historical inequalities of our racialized admissions legacies. Equally important, it advances our University as being both globally competitive and locally relevant by providing greater access to a quality educational experience for students, especially those from our most deprived and marginalised communities.  

So in closing, dear delegates as you embark on this important academic and professional journey in life, I am confident that with the support of the Studiestrust, your family and friends, you will not only do great things but more importantly, become a powerful agent of change that contributes to building of our City, our Province and our Country. Standing on the threshold of opportunity, I urge you to cast your gaze on the challenging, yet exciting horizon and take note of this quite apt advice as encapsulated in an African Proverb        

‘Wealth, if you use it, comes to an end. Learning, if you use it, increases’

I thank you

Adam Habib is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Witwatersrand. He is the author of South Africa’s Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects

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