Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Government funding in Higher Education

This week there are two articles on the funding of Higher Education (HE) that have caught my attention. One of the articles talk of a professor who has just discovered a “Better way to cut up of the pie” in South Africa, while the other one talks of a noble way of “Paying universities to lower their standards” in Italy. What is particularly interesting, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, the Vice Chancellor of one University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa considers it pretence in the government approach of seeing the 23 universities in South Africa as the same and using the same blurred vision to dictate their kind of funding. He advocates for the recognition of the “different histories, different capacities, different resources, and different visions and missions” each of the 23 universities in funding them.

What is intriguing is his argument for more funding for Humanities than science in South African universities. (This is not only a surprise because he is of a medical background, but also for the prominence science is being given for the economic development in Africa. I would argue also, given the AIDS scourge a person of his background would advocate for more funding for medical research especially in HIV/AIDS and TB). That is not to say that humanities (or social sciences) are lesser than the natural sciences. Indeed his proposal looks more proactive than reactive on one angle – that we need to first deal with our social and individual needs before we turn onto other areas like science. That is not to say I agree with his point of view. I would add that South Africa as a country as without doubt the rest of Africa need a proactive approach to the funding of projects and by extension higher education. That is, our reason for funding more humanities projects than science and technology projects in higher education should not be based on factors like the number of Nobel prizes we have in humanities as compared to sciences. Neither should it be pegged on the areas that we are good at, we need to explore new and diverse galaxies to find if there can be better life.

Just because South Africa is good in “international mediation, non-racism, reconciliation, justice, equity and even xenophobia” we should focus all our funding there. In fact, we can use that as a step towards exploring other areas like sciences or even medical research that is of betterment of the citizenry of this country and Africa as a whole. What the old professor seemed to ignore is that, despite what we can achieve in humanities, at the end of the day the “hungry child is going to aim to become a great scientist” not because there is lots of humanities in universities, but because there is food. In a time like his where everyone in the world has been alerted of a looming food shortage (although some are saying is artificial and speculative while others attribute it to the use of foodstuff in fuel/power generation), I would have expected the professor to advocate for some funding in food and agricultural research to feed the “hungry child”. Humanities won’t feed the child. In addition, it is time we changed the meaning of struggle from the mere creation of “a humane and just society... largely [based] on humanities”. Rather, we should transform the struggle to creating opportunities for the populace. I am yet to see a humane and just society where a section of it is destitute and hungry. While the iconography, native knowledge (and I may add wisdom), and unique history should be explored further, wide and deep, it should not be at the expense of science and technology. Well maybe I did miss a point.

In Italy, the economics are working. Universities (just like in SA incidentally) get subsidies from government based on number of graduates who “pass” through a university system. In this system, government “funds allocated to a university increase with the total number of full-time equivalent students (FTE), which is defined as the ratio between the number of exams passed and the number of exams that students should have taken.” The major concern of this approach is the allure of making more money by lowering academic standards. This especially becomes a problem because all universities are meant to be autonomous and offering their own examinations. In fact, as Professors Manuel F. Bagues and Mauro Sylos Labini and Ms Natalia Zinovyeva report, “graduates from universities with a high relative number of FTE students tend to do significantly worse in the labour market.” While this might be attributed to the high number of graduates the mills are producing (as compared to those graduating from high-grading university), there should be mechanisms of regulating the quality of academic offerings and standards at universities. Perhaps such mechanisms are favouring universities that “produce higher value added”, using “system based on external examiners” and “foster[ing] reputation effects in the market for higher education”. The latter could be done by “publicising data about how graduates of different universities and disciplines perform in the labour market.”

Let us see which university publishes data on employability of its graduates first!

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