Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Case of UCT's Centre for African Studies

In my last two posts on the African academy, I have alluded to a controversy relating to UCT's Centre for African Studies (CAS). For those who don't know, the controversy relates to a proposal which will see CAS being merged with some other departments - anthropology, linguistics and the African Gender Institute - and subsumed within a `new school for critical inquiry in Africa'. The UCT administration argues that such a move will enhance Africa-focused research and teaching, while resolving administrative/institutional problems that arise from small academic departments. Opponents argue that the result will be the watering-down of CAS's emphasis on African studies and perhaps the medium-term phasing-out of that kind of work altogether. The links at the end of this piece provide some further detail.

There are really two aspects to the issue. First, a somewhat normative one: is this the right approach to African studies as a subject, and to what extent does it reflect an ideological bias? Second, even if it does make sense to create a larger, cross-disciplinary entity, is this the best/most sensible way to go about it? In the same way as I avoided talking too much about the details of designing civil service recruitment programmes (in The Civil Service Question I and II), I am also going to avoid getting bogged-down in details of internal institutional design. Suffice to say that combining an anthropology department, which may well be interested in anthropological issues not confined to Africa, with linguistics (ditto), a `gender institute' focused on Africa, and a dedicated African studies department seems like a rather hodge-podge combination.

An important piece of background that keeps coming-up is what is referred to as `the Mamdani affair'.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Challenges for the (South) African Academy II: 'Corporatisation', Accountability and Purpose

In recent years, and across a range of countries, there has been a great deal of angst regarding the 'corporatisation' of universities. By 'corporatisation', critics usually mean the running and managing of universities along similar lines to businesses. Key aspects of concern include: The running of universities by individuals who are more managers than academics; an attempt to reduce the aims of academia to measurable performance indicators; and, an inordinate focus on maximising revenue for the university, possibly to the extent of sacrificing deeper academic/educational priorities. I don't know enough about the history of change in the tertiary sector to go into great detail, but my impression is that the trend towards a more corporate form of the university is partly a reflection of the perceived success of some American institutions that have adopted this kind of approach. It is also, of course, the reflection of a much broader societal trend that can be seen in an increasing number of non-private sector entities like NGOs and government departments.

An additional concern to those above is that in many countries - such as South Africa and the UK - governments are playing a strong role in foisting corporate models on universities. This exacerbates the concern with non-academic leadership, since the fear (quite understandably) is that management specialists are more likely to sacrifice academic freedom, on a variety of fronts, in the face of government pressure. In some sense this is ironic, because if universities were to succeed in attracting or generating significant independent revenue, they would gain greater independence from governments. That sort of situation is, however, relatively unlikely for large institutions in low- or middle income countries, from a purely economic perspective. Furthermore, in countries like the UK (and obviously South Africa), as opposed to the US,  there is much less agreement that effectively privatised universities would be a good thing.

In the absence of universities that are financially independent of tax revenues, is there any merit to the 'corporate' approach, or do the costs and dangers outweigh any benefits? What I am going to suggest is that while corporatisation in the above respects is a bad thing, we should not - in rejecting such models - allow academic institutions to gloss over the fact that academic freedom should not imply a free-for-all.