Struggle in academe

2008-07-16 00:00

South Africa has done marvellous work in transformation and redress through changing the face of our academic institutions, encouraging tolerance towards poverty and installing merited affirmative action. However, there is an urgent need to go beyond super-ficial transformation of institutions of research and higher learning.

Reports of an outcry by top South African universities over development grants being given to traditionally underdeveloped universities are quite puzzling. A call is also made to rationalise which universities should produce knowledge (via research and publications) and which ones should merely be centres of teaching. However, there is a need to call leaders in academic institutions to take a lead in rationalising transformation so that they are seen not to be subjective and thinking merely of their own institutions.

According to recent statistics in which the universities are shown to be doing well and could be regarded as top universities based on their research output, it is clear that those at the top are the ones that have always been regarded as “best” even during times of resource inequality based on race. Moreover “the top” also happens to be the ones that have “avoided” mergers with institutions of previous disadvantage or perhaps have “been allowed” not to go that far with transformation.

There are issues associated with this which need to be tackled directly rather than superficially if one is to transform research output and rating in academic institutions.

Firstly, we need data on who is actually publishing within these in-stitutions rather than just identifying top institutions. It is in seeing the demographic profile of these producers over a time frame that we can fully appreciate the extent of transformation in research output. Secondly, we also need to understand the gatekeeping processes in knowledge production. Research output is measured in terms of peer-reviewed output. Academic institutions should be transparent about transformation of its playing field. Who are the peers that sift through what gets counted as scientific in natural and social sciences? Why are there perceptions of “frozen demographics” in the scientific publication fields — with the main reviewers and producers being male, old and white? What has been done to change this? These questions should be asked alongside the lamentation by top universities that they are not rewarded for their success. It is convenient simply to look at who is getting the development grant while not tracking for how long they have been getting it and what has changed in the power relations of publications gatekeeping.

The main issue for me is that the knowledge production regime is still predominantly under the patronage of peers from a specific background. Excellence in journal peer-reviewing is still managed by a few who do not allow for different schools of thought to penetrate the knowledge production outputs. Discourses on ubuntu, indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) and protest paradigms are simply ruled out from conversing with dominant discourses in social sciences. Peer reviewing for accredited output is still in the hands of people from these very universities that are “top”. Over and above the monopoly on know-ledge sifting, they are the ones complaining against (quite new) measures geared to assist the previously disadvantaged institutions to deal with historical baggage.

Work needs to be done on the national system of accreditation and innovation. The current system not only affirms the dominance of an old boys club (almost literally) in output production, but it also suggests that intellectual abilities vary according to race and gender, which is such an embarrassment in the current age. Rather than a complaint from top universities, there is a need for university managers to come together and examine why the old rating hierarchy is almost undisturbed despite transformation; whether the use of the developmental grant is towards strengthening research output; there are specific measures designed for tackling peer-reviewing patronage of some traditions in the knowledge-production sphere; and when fields are levelled, how excellence is defined in knowledge production.

It is only after such critical work has been done that decisions can be made on which institutions can be research producers and which ones can be teaching universities. It would be dangerous to do that simply following the hint of who is currently producing more, under such suspect knowledge producing conditions. Departments of education and science and technology need to manage this issue with great analytical care — ensuring real strides in transformation of all institutions and ensuring that the contribution of currently stifled knowledge producers penetrates into outputs. Changing the demographics of staff will not automatically change the quality and range of knowledge production output.

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