So what are universities for?

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

uctLast week was Academic Activism week at the University of Cape Town, although you might not have suspected that judging from the session I participated in. The activism was all in a nearby room, where Minister Malusi Gigaba somehow kept a hundred or so students chanting and singing, despite not yet having arrived at the venue himself.

So, the panel discussion on the balance between research and teaching was poorly attended, and perhaps that’s as good a snapshot of reality as any: Gigaba is likeable and apparently fairly popular, connecting with a young demographic via a strong social media presence. However, he’s also responsible for at least one regulatory proposal that’s seriously lacking in intellectual rigour (the Internet and Cell Phone Pornography Bill, at this stage apparently stillborn).

This sometimes seems to be the choice we have, even in academia. Either embrace populism (in the case of the Bill, the easy win of a moral panic; and in academia, not making your students work too hard) or run the risk of losing goodwill, students or even elections through taking unpopular stances on issues, or even through researching unpopular topics.

As I remarked at the time, I don’t doubt that the two Deputy Vice-Chancellors who completed the panel – nor the rest of the executive team – are at all uncommitted to both quality research and quality teaching. However, we should be wary of talking as if – or believing – that there isn’t sometimes a clear tension between the two, especially when we consider who the student body is.

I arrived at UCT in 1991, and had the luxury of assembling a degree for myself, with my Faculty being assigned purely by the major subjects chosen. There was significant scope for taking subjects for the sake of interest, and also for changing your mind about your specialisation, in that you’d sometimes be able to discover your mistake after completing just one semester of accountancy, rather than having completed a suite of related courses.

By contrast, that sort of flexibility is rare today. The universities are also playing a different role, in that we’re educating more future town planners, engineers, lawyers and doctors than we are philosophers. There’s nothing wrong with a university contributing to addressing the developmental challenges of society. It would be wrong if it didn’t do so (with the caveat that it would be equally wrong to assume that philosophers can’t play a part in that enterprise).

The issue is to what extent the increasing focus on professional qualifications, alongside the challenges of teaching effectively to 21st century South African students, can’t help but compromise on high-level research (at least, in the absence of unlimited resources).

Students are somewhat different in the sense that a greater proportion of them arrive at a university looking to prepare for a career, rather than to get an education. Or more accurately, a greater proportion of their interest is directed at the former goal than was the case in the past. Yet, all students – at least at undergraduate level – are supporting an enterprise that intends to produce cutting-edge research, and bearing some of the costs of keeping that enterprise running.

Some students who are at a university for a 3-year vocational degree might appreciate the prestige that graduating from a research-leading university gives that degree, and willingly pay the premium. But I wonder if that number is as large as we hope it is, and whether many students might prefer to be paying middling fees to get an average education instead, and to what extent this question should inform what, and how, we teach them.

The competencies of university entrants are of course relevant also. A recent World Economic Forum survey lists South Africa’s maths and science education as being the 2nd worst in the world (we beat Yemen), and our education system as a whole was ranked 140 out of 144 surveyed countries. Yet, our Grade 12 pass rate is 74%, and 27% of school pupils achieve University Exemption.

Leaving aside any thoughts of policy, or the future of universities, it’s very difficult for me – having taught large 1st year classes for 15 years now – to see how this intake could do anything but change the way we teach, and often what we teach, thanks to the need to undo some of the harm caused by a dysfunctional primary and secondary education system.

With regard to research, a key concern is that if publicly funded institutions like universities were not studying the subtle and complex problems that could have a significant impact on society, who would do so? We do need to incentivise research, and we also need to play a very long-term game in terms of assessing the potential value of that research.

Academic researchers need support and time for working to complex problems, even if many of those problems might end up being insoluble. Making determinations of what’s worth investigating in advance would defeat the purpose of intellectual enquiry.

Both of these complex and demanding tasks, namely producing quality research and also quality graduates, come at a cost – yet both are vital to a flourishing society. We speak as if they naturally feed off one another, and that is to a large extent true.

Perhaps it’s only true up to a point, though. Mass education of those who have been denied competent secondary schooling is quite a different enterprise to honing the intellectual talents of those who had a privileged start, thereby producing innovative and productive researchers.

Doing both of these jobs well, and for the long-term, is the commitment we seem to be making to the country. I hope we don’t let you – and ourselves – down.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.