Opinion Piece

Shelagh Gastrow: Philanthropy and Universities: Supporting South Africa’s engine room of new ideas

A country that is not producing new knowledge can only sink into oblivion as it has merely to copy others rather than find solutions for its own context. Universities are the engine room for South Africa’s new ideas and play a critical role in its development.

Last week Belinda Bozzoli wrote an article pointing out that the National Research Foundation, which provides significant research funds to universities, will be cutting its funding by “about 90%”. This is a further blow to academia in South Africa. One starts to wonder why government is trying to strangle the academic project in this country while bolstering a dying fossil fuel industry through Eskom and a dying airline.

Globally, philanthropy has played a crucial role in the tertiary education sector and universities all over the world have invested in establishing functional fund-raising offices to secure the support of alumni, business and private philanthropy. The scope of funding opportunities at a university is vast as an interested donor can find a range of projects that would fit their interests, ranging from health to the arts to the environment. While we tend to think of universities as sites of education, they are in fact microcosms of our society and reflect almost every aspect of human endeavour, while striving for excellence and innovation in solving the needs of a fast-changing world.

Taking into account the massive squeeze on university funding that we are currently experiencing in South Africa, there are specific priorities that emerge across the higher education field that require private or philanthropic investment if we want to sustain our universities.

The first key area to consider is student access.

Previously, this focused on transforming student demographics, but now the focus is on student fees as larger numbers of students from families that are not in a position to pay substantial fees have been accepted for study. Some companies responded in 2016 and early in 2017 with major donations, but these once-off payments are not a sustainable route over the long term. The only eventual solution would be government funding, but there is still a lot that any donor can do by supporting students financially.

Standard Bank has recently backed a website that undertakes crowdfunding and which has now moved close to R3-million through www.feenix.org. This allows for even small commitments towards a student’s fees and will add to the larger grants being made by private foundations and the corporate sector.

In addition to student access, the issue of student success is paramount. Funding is required for academic support programmes for students who are not well prepared at school for the rigours of university study. Many donors with whom I have worked have found that the “wrap-around” support for recipients of their bursaries has contributed significantly to their success at university. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, for example, has a very substantial scholars’ programme and they provide for a holistic support programme. According to their website it includes “… a bursary of R150,000, available over the course of the degree, as well as a laptop, printing credits and financial support for textbooks and basic necessities. We also have an on-campus liaison that provides ongoing support to Dell Young Leaders dealing with psycho-social, academic, housing or financial challenges that may prevent our students from successfully completing university.”

A further element that is crucial for the survival of our universities is our ability to grow the next generation of academic teachers and researchers. There are various programmes at different universities that are focused on achieving this. Academia is not necessarily the best paid work in South Africa, especially taking into account that completing a PhD can take between nine to 12 years of study through the university system. This is a huge investment for an individual and our academics clearly should be rewarded more substantially than at present. Building a new cohort of innovative and excellent academic staff requires significant donor support and encouragement, while the corporate sector is fishing in the same pool for talent.

Rhodes University runs its Next Generation Academic Programme that provides three years of support to new academics, bringing them together “in an environment where they can learn, advance and socialise with other new academics from all faculties”. There are shortages of funding for post-doctoral contracts that assist individuals to bridge the period between completing their PhDs and finding their feet at the university. This is often an opportunity to grasp the beginning of the academic ladder by being given the time to research and publish.

Most important, academia is a way of life – this is not just a teaching job, but requires committed people who can communicate, teach, be highly innovative and undertake cutting edge research. The job of an academic is not only to replicate knowledge, but produce knowledge. A country that is not producing new knowledge can only sink into oblivion as it has merely to copy others rather than find solutions for its own context.

Universities are the engine room for South Africa’s new ideas and play a critical role in its development.

Besides the teaching and professional training that takes place at our universities, where we are producing lawyers, accountants, engineers and doctors, this country is producing incredible solutions to global challenges. Any scan through our universities’ websites shows what extraordinary work has been achieved. The range of research is staggering and helps us understand current contextual issues from governance and development, our eco-systems, models for HIV and Aids care, foreign trade, tourism, technology, how our cities work and future predictions to space research. In addition, very specific products are being developed that can be patented. Wits, for example, has a separate entity called Wits Enterprise that assists in taking new ideas to market.

Other areas that could be funded include capital projects such as new laboratories, upgraded libraries, computer centres, research equipment and buildings that house specific disciplines. As the size of the universities grows, so more lecture theatres and residences are required.

How do we therefore ensure that our brightest and best minds remain in South Africa, especially when one of their lifelines, the National Research Foundation, is not being maintained by government, resulting in massive cuts in support for our academics?

Academics need to engage globally – the word university implies universal – and knowledge is not static, it is shared and adapted. Without additional support for travel to engage with others in the same discipline, to share knowledge at conferences and other academic gatherings, to spend sabbatical periods at other universities, our academics are stifled and it would be totally understandable that they move. There is a war for talent and when conditions are made intolerable, academics can move. That will leave South Africa much poorer, not only financially, but if we have no centre to generate new ideas in a world that is fast-changing, then we can only decline.

If business is recruiting from universities and wants to ensure that they can keep identifying top class graduates in the required fields they need, they should consider investing in those departments or faculties, to ensure access, success and the next generation of academics.

Philanthropy does play a role in higher education, but philanthropic funds in South Africa are a smaller pool that those of the corporate sector and government. While philanthropy can assist in preventing the inevitable through carefully crafted strategic engagement with the universities, ultimately our country needs to pressure government to reprioritise higher education and to move away from the many lost causes that it currently funds. DM

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