CoVID-19 has unmasked the pressing need for more collaboration among universities and an end to debilitating austerity measures that cripple student postgraduate funding. This was among the topics discussed at the 6th Research and Innovation Biennial Dialogue, hosted by Universities South Africa’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG) last Friday.
The virtual conference, attended by academics, the research community and government representatives was interrogating the theme: CoVID-19 – Impact on Research and Post-Graduate Studies. A point was made on an urgent need to lobby government to make science and innovation a priority – across all departments. This session was chaired by USAf’s Chief Executive Officer, Professor Ahmed Bawa.
University of Cape Town’s Emeritus Professor in Education and African Studies and former CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council, Professor Crain Soudien (left), expressed belief that there was something big going on, that universities need to pay attention to.
“What are we going to do to steer our institutions into the future? The big thing, for me, is the need to stabilise our institutions as a result of what has happened since the start of the pandemic. But how do you get to that next step of doing that ‘little more’ that turns your institution around? That ‘little more’ has to be around collaboration – working with other people.”
He said that “the road map” (drawn up from ideas presented at the conference) has marked our interdependence. Referring to a presentation by Professor Rasigan Maharajh, of the Tshwane University of Technology, Professor Soudien said he had “succinctly pointed out our organic interdependence as people, but also with the natural world, and the planet as a whole.”
He asked: “How do we build knowledge projects around the ontological reality about us? We’ve established that we’re interdependent. Now, how do we steer our institutions to respond to this when our instincts have been so self-preservational until now, focused on our own demands and requirements?” Responding, Professor Bawa said he was convinced that the only way all universities finished the academic year in 2020 was “by coming to this realisation that we all have to work together. It’s all about collaboration.”
Professor Maharajh (right) made the point that the “clear and present danger in front of us is the danger of austerity.” He referred to the points raised by another speaker, Executive Director in charge of Internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg, Professor Ylva Rodny-Gumede who talked of the need for partnerships and greater collaboration.
“As Ylva has said, the disruptions (breaking old traditional methods and finding new ways to communicate with one another) are of our making; they come from our own socio-economic formations. We should take the time to consolidate ourselves as a system capable of responding to those real challenges.”
Professor Maharajh said there were sufficient opportunities available and that the lesson had been learnt that science could contribute to a better future for all. “But we must work with civil society in a way that allows us to advance that idea on behalf of society.”
The system must be adequately funded
To this end, he said, it was critical to ensure that the system is adequately funded.
“I’m shocked when Professor Fulufhelo Nelwamondo (CEO of the National Research Foundation, NRF) gives us the statistics around the number of postgraduate students who could not be funded because of budgetary constraints. That is us saying NO to people. That is what we need to confront.”
The NRF’s Professor Gansen Pillay responded: “Regarding the stark reality of those students who could not be funded in the current financial year: it’s not a case of us just saying: ‘these are the numbers, these are the students who cannot be supported’, and then us moving on. It calls for all of us as a community to form partnerships. The NRF sees itself largely as a partner with higher education institutions. We’re not going to solve this alone. We have to partner together and see how best to use these resources.”
Professor Nelwamondo corroborated these sentiments saying: “The country is facing socio-economic challenges, and the cards that we have been dealt are not of our own making. We need to raise funds, to get adequate funding that can sustain the students. But, we also have to live with what we have. Unfortunately, tough calls have had to be made. It is painful to see the number of students that will not be funded. I call on all of us to work together to see what we can do.”
We could lobby better and harder
Professor Anastassious Pouris from the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology, and Managing Director: Quantitative Evidence Research, said that it was time to begin lobbying government. “We need to get government to recognise and acknowledge the value of science and technology. Whether it goes through constituencies or whether we simply improve our lobbying activities – that are almost non-existent – this is what we have to do.”
From the University of Johannesburg, Professor Saurab Sinha (left), Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation, said the system “remains fragmented around resource mobilisation”.
“When it was announced in 2017 that undergraduate funding for the needy would come through NSFAS, many private sector funders thought that this would solve all issues.” It did not. He added that private sector funding did not channel into the post-graduate tiers, troubling at a time when a greater number of students are showing an interest in pursuing postgraduate studies.
“I think lobbying National Treasury is important. We need to show that research and innovation have a major catalytic role to play in the South African economy. That feels like something we can do together,” he said.
Responding, Professor Bawa said: “One of the common themes throughout this conference has been the need for us to shift the mindset of austerity to a mindset of understanding that there are investments to be made. That’s part of our challenge: to shift to how we see science, innovation and higher education as points of expenditure rather than just points of investment.” He said that would change the methodology of the dialogue and so shift the way of thinking.
It was necessary to ask questions, Professor Bawa continued: “What is the knowledge project? How can we get it to speak to this shift in sensibility about investment, about shifting away from an austerity approach?” Professor Bawa put the question out to all participants online.
Collaboration is the way around limited resources
Professor Sue Harrison (right) from the University of Cape Town said she was intrigued by how the research base at local universities had been broken into two groups since the start of the pandemic. “There are those who are really empowered and hugely busy, doing amazing work in CoVID-19-based research. For them, the money is just rolling in. And then there are the rest of the researchers where the money isn’t rolling in and where the research is in a different space – they might need to be on the ground – doing research that is field-work based or lab-based. These researchers are struggling to get to work with people in the way that they would like to. How do we take this further?”
Responding to Professor Harrison, Professor Gansen said: “As Sue indicated, one of the points that have been raised is around the speed with which research has progressed in the last year because of collaboration. When resources are limited and collaboration is heightened then the need for resources is also reduced because of coming together. There’s something to be learnt there: how collaborations advance research across the space.”
Also adding to the debate, Professor Rodny-Gumede (left) argued that the pandemic had shown that it was possible for people to work together. She said there had been shifts in communication methods since the beginning of the pandemic – like the increased calls being made between colleagues at different universities.
“There has been a collegiality to conversations. I’ve had calls from colleagues from other universities asking how we’ve managed certain projects. That is what will take us further in this environment.”
She said that new and better ways of looking at alternatives for postgraduate studies were being considered, one of them being the idea of online degrees. “This has been a massive boon for our international students. There are solutions; we just need to be willing to try them out and be brave,” Professor Rodny-Gumede said.
Professor Bawa summed up the session: “What we’re learning from Covid-19 is how to head into the future. We are finding that it is not just about beating our financial challenges, but also about how we can collaborate to improve what we do.”
Professor Bawa said that USAf was in the process of developing a shared services platform across the sector. The USAf Office was exploring ways to share research facilities among all 26 universities. “We’re looking at ways that teaching and learning platforms can be shared across the sector. It might be one way to create the conditions for more partnerships and collaborations,” he said.
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.