How the funding of science research in South Africa can be overhauled

South Africa needs some universities that focus on teaching, and others that concentrate on research. Shutterstock

South Africa’s universities are bracing themselves for a tough 2017. The country’s National Treasury has warned that there’s simply not enough money to make up the shortfall created by a freeze on fees during 2016.

At the same time, the country’s universities are slipping down global ranking tables. Their worsening performance suggests less investment in research and postgraduate output, factors which heavily influence how rankings are calculated.

And yet research, development, science and technology are all recognised as crucial growth factors - both for the country’s economy and for individual universities. The National Development Plan, considered a blueprint for the country’s growth until 2030, states:

Science and technology continue to revolutionise the way goods and services are produced and traded. South Africa needs to sharpen its innovative edge and continue contributing to global scientific and technological advancement. This requires greater investment in research and development, better use of existing resources …

That “greater investment” hasn’t materialised yet. South Africa, with a population of 52 million, spends 0.73% of its Gross Domestic Product on research and development. Australia, home to 24 million people, spends 2.1%. South Korea, home to 50 million people, spends 4.3%. These two nations' investments have paid dividends: they are considered world leaders in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths.

It’s time for South Africa to put its money where its mouth is. I propose a total overhaul of how science funding is allocated. This should be done on the premise that not all universities should be focusing on research and development. Some should be funded only as teaching institutions; others with proven track records should concentrate on research and scientific output. This will save billions that can be redirected to improve the quality of science teaching and the country’s research output more broadly.

A new structure is needed

There are 26 universities in South Africa. All of these teach the “hard sciences” – such as Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics – up to the 4th year Honours degree. They receive funds towards this work from the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Beyond Honours, at the levels of masters and doctoral studies, the focus switches sharply to research. Research enterprises in the sciences are far more expensive to run than teaching programmes. For research you need laboratories, instruments, increased access to expensive online journals and more.

But more than half of the country’s 26 universities are simply not producing enough good quality research. The QS World rankings for 2016/17 feature only nine South Africa universities. These tend to be institutions that were well resourced during the apartheid era. Their previously disadvantaged counterparts – which largely catered for black students – have less research infrastructure and so struggle more to attract top researchers. This affects their performance when it comes to output.

Perhaps it is time to rethink how academic research is structured in the costly sciences. Masters and doctoral research students are serious about their work. They want to publish in top journals. They want to perform research at well-equipped laboratories. They want to work with the best professors in the field, at universities with a solid research reputation.

Research students know it is the combined quality of these factors that determines the next step in their careers. I’d argue that it’s necessary to focus and consolidate science research endeavours across the country at institutions with a proven track record of research output. And it’s time to stop giving research-linked funding to institutions that don’t perform.

Savings put to good use

Given South Africa’s history, this suggestion might seem controversial. It implies that formerly black and disadvantaged universities won’t ever be able to become proper research institutions and ought to be used solely for teaching. Some would argue that this perpetuates the inequalities left by apartheid. I can accept this. But the reality is that South Africa cannot become a world leader in the sciences using the current system.

And the money that is saved by not unnecessarily funding research at some institutions can be ploughed back into the country more broadly. There are three areas where these savings could be used:

  1. Funding worthy students from all socio-economic backgrounds to attend top research institutions;

  2. Bolstering the activities that are already underway at research-active universities. South Africa has a proud history of scientific discovery and innovation. In recent times, paleontologists have discovered a new human-like species; the country will soon host the largest radio telescope in the world, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). There’s also great work being done towards vaccines and disease cures.

  3. Launching more desperately needed science, technology, engineering and maths teacher training colleges. South Africa simply doesn’t have enough science and maths teachers in its schools at the moment. These colleges could be based at teaching universities that have basic infrastructure.

This approach is not without precedent.

International examples

Consider Australia’s Group of Eight (or Go8) university model. Australia has 43 universities and, until 1999, the government funded all these institutions' research more or less equally. Then the formula was changed and the Go8 was born.

This is a coalition of eight research-intensive universities, all of which are consistently ranked in the world’s top 200 institutions. The Go8 receive about 75% of Australian competitive grant funding. They spend some $AU 6 billion (about R64.2 billion) on research annually and award 53% of all doctorates in the country.

In the US, research universities have emerged in the years after World War II as a global role model. Having studied there, I know that almost all these institutions' students earn their undergraduate degrees elsewhere, then relocate to research-intensive spaces for their postgraduate work. It is also well established that those looking for academic careers had better earn their doctorates at top research universities.

Yet in South Africa it is quite common to get one’s undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at the same institution. What is so wrong with pursuing your undergraduate degree at a university that’s geared for great teaching, then relocating to a research institution for postgraduate study?

Getting serious

South Africa needs to prove that it’s serious about investing in research and development to benefit all its citizens. To do so, it must consolidate and focus research quality and expenditure in the right places. It must use its limited resources as carefully as possible. This means scrapping financially draining, unproductive postgraduate degrees and research activities at many universities. This will boost the whole nation in the long term.

The Conversation

Werner van Zyl receives funding from the National Research Foundation (NRF), and the ESKOM Tertiary Education Support Programme (TESP).