Institutions of higher learning need to be proactive and not reactive when it comes to financial sustainability.
This was the view of Professor Ruksana Osman (right), Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand, when addressing participants in the University Shared Services: Drivers, Benefits, Success Factors and Challenges session of Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference held last week, in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education (CHE). All deliberations and debates hinged on the Conference theme: The Engaged University.
Osman started off by interrogating the terminology “shared services”.
“I interpret shared services as questions about financial sustainability. If we are to think about universities as sustainable spaces into the future, sustainability is not just a financial imperative but should include environmental imperatives and the socio emotional sustainability of our university communities; that is communities within the university but also communities in which our universities are embedded. We shouldn’t only be focusing on shared services within the institutions but be able to expand to our surrounding communities.”
Shared services in the context of an unequal university and country demand a different way of thinking about institutional priorities and financial sustainability. There are key areas that ought to shape our thinking, she said.
How to engender certainty
“We need to have a long term framework for funding to engender certainty. Uncertainty is harmful to sustain the provision of quality teaching, quality education and quality research. Uncertainty and a stop/start approach also has detrimental effects on our country’s development.
“There’s also a false economy around questions of sustainability and shared services. They are proposed as sustainable opportunities but what happens, in fact, is underfunding and [budget] cuts affect the competitiveness of South African higher education. They induce a brain drain of staff and of top students. Because of student mobility, many students not returning to their home country compromise us as a country — with ramifications that extend into the future.”
Professor Osman is of the opinion that underfunding and cuts also have an intergenerational effect: “They don’t just impact the university of today. They detrimentally affect the university of tomorrow, making recovery almost impossible.
“If we are thinking about shared services, the private sector and philanthropy should also be playing a big part. Collaboration helps transcend resource constraints. However, a recalibration is required. We have to consider that high-net individuals have lost a third of their net worth in the past 18 months due to the pandemic and the economic downturn. So we have to rethink how we want philanthropy to be involved with us in our sustainability mission. Essentially, we are seeking resources and funding in times of an uncertain future.
“We have to demonstrate that we aren’t just universities who ask but we are also a sector who has something to give back. Together institutions of higher learning should demonstrate regional, continental and global solidarity at its best. Let philanthropists and the private sector be involved in shared services and our sustainability but let’s do it in a way that demonstrates this solidarity.”
The lifeblood of universities
This, however, should not take away from the intellectual work done by universities: “We should have a deep respect for the different disciplinary traditions within our university. Faculties remain the lifeblood of universities and we need to showcase their work to attract the funding that we need.
“We look at intellectual projects and research as requiring funding from us. That’s quite true. In fact, in most of our universities, a big part of the budget is spent in supporting the intellectual project. Our intellectual work is not just work that requires resources but, in fact, it is also something that can attract resources into the university if university leaders see a close link between financial sustainability and the intellectual work that we do.”
University systems also need to optimise resources.
“This is one of the easier ways we can sustain ourselves financially. Shared services should allow for a seamless experience for staff and students. I’ll give an example about the provisioning of social justice in the university as a shared service. Most universities have a transformation office, an employee relations office, the disability rights office, an office that deals with discrimination and so on. These could be shared and the net effect would be that students and staff members, who are on the receiving end of discrimination or injustice, have a one stop place to get support.
“We speak a lot about interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work and yet we work in silos. The financial aspects of shared service – sharing administrative support, sharing human resource support, sharing financial administration support – all contribute to efficiencies in ways that we’ve never thought about or in ways that we’ve never been able to implement.”
The future of the university sector is interrelated in a way that goes beyond universities’ control, she said.
Anticipatory consciousness is likely to aid sustainability
Professor Osman concluded: “Financial sustainability is often characterised by reactiveness or a reaction to each other, a reaction to an event in our sector and reaction to structures or circumstances. In the face of global uncertainty, I want to suggest that financial sustainability also needs to be characterised by anticipation, not just by reaction.
“By this I do not mean the algorithmic anticipatory regimes that have come to characterise policy and practice in our sector — regimes that are looked at in a restricted way or regimes that plot what the future will look like. They believe they are being futuristic but focus in narrow ways on just numbers. Instead, I see value in pursuing an anticipatory consciousness. This is not abandoning the need to lead; leaders need to lead and leaders need to forge a prosperous future for our universities. But what an anticipatory stance does, is create conditions for the possibility of a not-yet-imagined financial future for our sector.”
The breakaway session on University Shared Services was the third session during last week’s Higher Education Conference to be dedicated to funding issues as conceptualised by USAf’s Funding Strategy Group (FSG). The FSG also dedicated other sessions to Sustainable University Funding in an Unequal Society and Funding for Infrastructure Development. The FSG is one of USAf’s five strategy groups which determined the 2nd Higher Education Conference agenda. The four other groups, which enjoyed their own dedicated platforms, focused on their own higher education priorities around Teaching and Learning; Transformation; Research and Innovation and the World of Work.
Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.