Financial sustainability is a prerequisite to universities’ continued existence

11-11-21 USAf 0 comment

“We have to be financially sustainable to guarantee our very existence. If we do not exist, we will not be able to pursue our intellectual projects.” These statements summarise what came out of the reflective breakaway sessions of Universities South Africa’s Funding Strategy Group (FSG) deliberations at the 2nd USAf Higher Education Conference, conducted in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education (CHE) from 6 to 8 October.

Professor Gerald Ouma, member of the FSG and Senior Director: Institutional Planning at the University of Pretoria, reported on this Group’s discussions and debates during the conference’s concluding plenary. He was then standing in for the Chair of this Group, Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria.

During The Engaged University conference, the FSG had examined three themes, namely Sustainable University Funding in an Unequal Society; Funding for Infrastructure Development and University Shared Services: Drivers, Benefits, Success Factors and Challenges. On the last day, all strategy groups summarised to the plenary what had transpired in their breakaway sessions.

Said Professor Ouma: “Our first session focused on sustainable university funding in an unequal society and that was quite deliberate given the context that we find ourselves in. We need to find ways in which we can be sustainable as we cannot be vibrant institutions now, and into the future, if we do not achieve this.

“We also looked to the future when it comes to funding and infrastructure development. The idea was to reimagine space and infrastructure and to rethink the idea of traditional brick and mortar and to deliberate quite critically about investing in digital transformation and technologies; both for teaching and learning and also for research and community engagement.

“The shared services at universities session examined the drivers, benefits and success factors and challenges that go straight to the question of sustainable university funding,” he explained. He then outlined the key outtakes from each session as shared below.

Sustainable University Funding in an Unequal Society

Key outtakes:

  • Financial sustainability is closely tied to the intellectual life of the university.
  • The crisis of higher education funding is just part of larger issues of poverty unemployment and inequality while the economy continues to shrink.
  • Diversifying revenue streams is critical to manage resource dependence challenges. This helps buffer universities from cuts from key funders including the state.
  • The sources of philanthropy have diminished and funding is being sought in a very uncertain future.
  • Third-steam income should be carefully understood – “encumbered” funds cannot be used to solve some of the most pressing problems such as that of student fees. Universities need to develop a better understanding of where the money comes from and where the benefactor intends it to be used. Capabilities at universities must be developed to attract funding.
  • One speaker believed that it is the responsibility of the State to fully finance the higher education sector with limited or non-existent private involvement. However, subsequent discussions indicated that this would be a challenge due to other demands on the shrinking fiscus.

Funding for Infrastructure Development

Key outtakes:

  • There is a need to re-imagine infrastructure in the context of digital transformation. CoViD-19 has leapfrogged universities into the digital age and the future is here right now and has to be embraced.
  • Technology is mission critical and non-negotiable.
  • There is an urgent need to invest in areas such as cloud computing, quantum technology and virtual and augmented reality. Cooperation within the “triple helix” of universities, state and the private sector is vital to drive this process. It is also vital to ensure that some universities are not left behind.
  • Public private partnerships (PPPs) may deliver infrastructure more effectively and quickly and help universities to be more agile, thus freeing them to focus on their core roles.
  • It is imperative to find a balance between risk and desired outcomes when entering PPPs.

University Shared Services: Drivers, Benefits, Success Factors and Challenges

Key outtakes:

  • Universities are excellent candidates for shared services including finance, student administration, human resources (HR) and information technology (IT).
  • Sustainability should be a focus in higher education.
  • Case studies were presented of two networks, IT service and digital resource providers, namely the UK’s Jisc network ( and the public universities driven TENET (Tertiary Education & Research Network of South Africa) (
  • The benefits of shared services include higher productivity, the improvement of providing quality education, reduced systems infrastructure costs, the ability to leverage investments, resource planning systems, access to expertise and advanced technology.
  • Successes have included the buy-in from many institutions and the clear gains for those involved.
  • Challenges have been managing tension between unhealthy competition and collaboration, accountability when it comes to collaboration with the state, concerns about autonomy and compliance with privacy laws.

“The key issue in all these three themes was the sustainability of higher education institutions. It was also about reimagining them. We live in particular contexts which are both local and global and which we cannot ignore. The conversations demonstrated that we need to work and pull together to be able to provide good quality education to our students and make a difference our communities and in broader society,” Professor Ouma said in conclusion.

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.