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.

Existence and size of public universities

To get to this conclusion, we can start by thinking a little about why most modern universities exist, and exist at their present size. Some academics who criticise the managerial approach, and any notions of accountability or measuring of social value, like to hark back to the academy as it was with the Greek philosophers. The likes of Plato, so the argument goes, were operating independently, not for any pecuniary benefit and in self-managing communities of scholars. This kind-of argument is bad for a number of reasons (leaving aside the clear Eurocentric bias that tends to accompany it). Perhaps the most important one for our purposes is that Plato was not getting a salary paid in part from taxpayer revenue. Furthermore, many great scholars from past centuries had wealthy 'benefactors', who were known to direct their research in some instances. Indeed, in a few cases, work was actually published under the benefactor's name - presumably not something most modern academics would be happy with. Absent the modern equivalent of a wealthy, hands-off benefactor, a situation of complete `academic freedom' is not likely to arise and is an unrealistic benchmark. So the question becomes how universities can maximise academics' scope for intellectual independence while playing the social role(s) they are expected to. 

While the original evolution of university-style institutions is an interesting area, it is not clear to me that there is much value for the present piece in being detained by the details of the founding of even the oldest of the current crop of universities. In modern times, universities have not so much evolved as been established. This occurs, typically, for one of three reasons: i. The state - or a social equivalent - decides that there is a need for an institution of higher/post-tertiary education; ii. A private entity determines that there is sufficient demand for tertiary education to make it profitable; iii. A benefactor decides to establish a tertiary institution as a philanthropic act. 

In South Africa the majority of our largest and most highly regarded institutions are public institutions. What determines the base number of academics in these universities is, I would suggest, the number of students. (If this seems mind-bogglingly obvious, keep reading). That in turn is determined in part by government funding, since the government subsidises every South African student (and indeed SADC students too). Additional funding for academic posts comes indirectly from government funding for peer-reviewed research that meets certain criteria (e.g. R120,000 per paper published in an ISI-ranked journal) and external grants - the latter coming from firms, multilateral institutions, foreign governments or philanthropic entities. 

 To look at some specific figures from UCT's 2009 financial statements: UCT receives about 40% of its funding from ``State appropriations - subsidies and grants", 25% from student fees, 20% from ``contracts'' and 8% from ``donations and gifts''. It is unclear quite how much of the state subsidy is for published research, but some figures suggest it could be up to 25% (so 10% of the total income). This is a useful benchmark since UCT seems likely - by virtue of its status and profile - to receive a higher proportion of non-subsidy/grant funding than any other public university in the country and is known to have the highest research output. 

So far this all seems obvious or unsurprising. However, once one contrasts this state of affairs with the emphasis of a typical international-standard university, things begin to look a little odd. In particular, I am going to focus on the issue of accountability - starting from the premise that accountability should be at least somewhat proportional to funding.

The a-word

I have been told that I should not use the word `accountability' in the presence of academics. This is because - to return to our original question about the merits of corporatisation - they tend to associate it with corporatisation and/or interference by the state in their affairs. It seems to me that in rejecting the negative aspects of corporatisation - such as excessive focus on revenue generation, universities being run by managers with little knowledge of academia, or reductions in the freedom to conduct academic research - many academics effectively dismiss any suggestion that they should be held accountable to anyone except elected groups of their peers. There are deep problems with that kind of model and the distasteful symptoms are well-known to those who have had any long-term exposure to academia.    

If universities get most of their public money based on the number of students they have registered, then one would expect these institutions to be accountable for the service (another word I am told I should not use) they provide to society. And yet there is very little evidence that this is the case. Promotions and status are primarily based on research prowess and ability to generate additional funding, rather than excellent teaching or student mentoring. While plagiarism can lead to an academic being summarily expelled from a university, a whole variety of indiscretions toward students are usually dealt with by a slap on the wrist. The latter is also often true for bad behaviour by senior academics toward junior or administrative staff, who often play a more vital role in the teaching side of the institution.

As I have indicated, the symptoms of this distorted system are regularly visible. These range from ostensibly more minor things like failing to return students' work timeously and non-existent course administration, to bigger issues like verbal and emotional abuse of students. Despite the serious nature of these acts, as one person said to me - only half tongue-in-cheek - ``a professor would have to rape a student to get thrown out" of a university for student-related `indiscretions'. One practical issue is that (for the more minor issues) some students can be capricious and inclined to criticise academics dishonestly for self-serving purposes. However, this concern is often blown out of proportion, and instead of attempting to develop robust internal mechanisms for ensuring quality teaching and administration, the typical approach is to place a huge burden of proof on students (or even other academics) who raise such concerns.  

In doing some reading for this blog I came across an interesting report for the Council on Higher Education entitled ``Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy and the Corporatised University in a Contemporary South Africa". I'll get back to the other aspects of this report below, but one relevant, striking omission is the almost complete absence of substantive references to students in the context of academic freedom and corporatisation. I would suggest that is not a coincidence - many academics like to think their existence qua (`as') academics is due to a deep knowledge and incisive intellect rather than a pragmatic, social need to transfer knowledge from one generation to others. In my experience, however, very few of these individuals would engage in intellectual activities if they were not being paid for it. (One view to which I am sympathetic is that the modern academy, by becoming simply another form of employment, has corrupted some of the supposed key principles on which academia is based). In short, what I am suggesting is that most academics do not exist for the reasons they like to think. However, they are largely allowed to proceed as if that is the case, because the social purpose of universities gets mixed-up with this rhetoric and there is little accountability to society at large (directly or via the state). Such tensions are inevitably more pronounced in more resource-constrained countries like South Africa.

Is internal abuse better?

Although I have qualms with the basic logic of the analysis and therefore significant parts of the conclusions, the CHE report presents a very useful categorisation of potential violators of academic freedom:
  • The ``repressive apparatus of the state" (e.g. security agencies)
  •  Excessively interfering state bureaucrats (e.g. from departments of education)
  • Bureaucrats within universities themselves (e.g. university councils)
  • ``Senior academics themselves"

The current model of academic freedom in South Africa quite clearly, and admittedly sometimes a little hysterically, opposes the first two categories. There is also some occasional debate, in the context of issues around corporatisation and `managerial' approaches, as to how much power higher levels of the university (the third category) should have. The one group that have been, and continue to be, given relatively free reign are senior academics. Many of the worst cases one hears of in academia involve professors, heads of department or deans (heads of faculties) and it is precisely because they are often only weakly accountable for their actions, especially as relates to students and junior colleagues. For instance, an examination of the UCT statute - which has legislative status - reveals many pages on student discipline and conduct but nothing on the conduct of academics themselves. Aside from some non-binding statements in documents about the 'principles' of the university, there are very few guidelines on this issue. 

What I want to suggest is that the current model protects academics and students from external abuse of power by making them vulnerable to internal abuse. I do not think this is an acceptable compromise. Academics are self-interested actors like any others and cannot be allowed to merely self-regulate while receiving public funds, student fees and legislatively-allocated powers. As the saying goes, with rights come responsibilities. In recognising that corporatisation is problematic because it infringes on socially and individually valuable academic independence, we must also recognise that those benefiting from such freedom need to meet their responsibilities to other citizens, most particularly their students and colleagues. In addition, we similarly have to recognise that there is a significant opportunity cost to the public expenditure being channeled to universities. While accountability to the state may be undesirable, there can be no question that these institutions must be accountable to society at large.

While some - such as the authors of the CHE report - have suggested that these issue can be resolved by universities diversifying funding sources, this is emblematic of what Thandika Mkandawire (appraently paraphrasing Gramsci) has succinctly termed "The pessimism of the diagnosis and the optimism of the prescription". The alternative funders listed earlier - firms, multilateral institutions, foreign governments and philanthropic entities - are hardly disinterested actors. With money comes direct or indirect influence of varying degrees; changing the parties trying to pull the strings reflects less of a solution than an ideological leaning towards what sort of academic freedoms might be acceptably suppressed.

For so long as South African universities and academics resist grappling with the basic problem of combining accountability with academic freedom, they leave themselves at risk of more wide-ranging interventions that may well fatally compromise the South African academy.  

[Note: I have used UCT as an example not because it suffers from problems any more than other South African institutions - the opposite is probably true - but rather because it is an institution with which I am relatively familiar and presents its documentation in an organised and transparent manner].

Some interesting links:      

A recent article in the M&G alluding to the many problems students experience with their supervisors:
And a fairly typical story:

A short post on university corporatisation. What is particularly interesting about this is that the majority of the pieces posted on this blog are outrageous examples of a lack of accountability within universities (e.g. the one above):

A post on corporatisation by the Adam Smith Institute. The emphasis and comments are interesting in the context of an organisation that promotes 'free market principles':

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