Professor Adam Habib, speaks exclusively to The Chronicle of Education on African Higher Education

Professor Adam Habib is the incumbent Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. He delivered the keynote address entitled: Quality Assurance and Global Competiveness: A Challenge for African Universities, at the 31st Annual Conference of the Association of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities held recently at the University of Jos, Jos, Nigeria, from May 29 to June 2, 2016. The Chronicle of Education was present and requested for an interview opportunity with Professor Habib to enable him to shed more light on some of his thoughts on certain key aspects of higher education on the continent. The subsequent, exclusive interview was conducted by our higher education reporter, Anu Oyeleye, who posed a diversity of questions to Professor Habib. The following is the full text of the exclusive interview.

The Chronicle of Education is pleased to have you on its interview series.

You are variously described as an “academic, an activist, an administrator, and a renowned political media commentator and columnist”. Kindly introduce yourself to our teeming global readers.

The descriptive words are far less important than the actions we take. I believe that in all the roles described above there is one common thread – effecting real social change through education and innovation.

You are the current Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa, a position you assumed in June 2013. What is the state of Wits today? What are some of the key changes or innovations which have occurred so far under your leadership?

The University had a strategic plan in place when I arrived. I, together, with my executive team prioritised implementing the strategic plan. In that regard, we identified six priority areas and developed plans to implement them.

One of the first priorities was to drive research. We created new incentive structures for research, we brought in many distinguished professors and we increased the numbers of postgraduate students and postdoctoral candidates. This resulted in Wits’ research output rising by almost 40% over three years. This is one of the fastest growing areas of research output in the country.

The drive to attract more postgraduate students has resulted in a dramatic increase in postgraduate enrolments in recent years. The University has attracted hundreds of postdoctoral fellows from diverse countries around the world in the last three years, all of whom contribute towards our research-intensive goal.

Our throughput and graduation rates have increased by about 1.5% over the last two years as we have established significant student support systems in residences, faculties and other university areas.

We have made significant investments in the University’s information technology systems and will spend almost R520 million in the coming years to implement world-class infrastructure. Aside from the obvious benefits to our current students, we will also use these systems to develop Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), short courses and ultimately complete online degrees. The first suite of five MOOCs will be launched this month for enrolment from September onwards while our short course suites are undergoing a major overhaul at the moment to broaden the offering. We are also keen on promoting blended learning programmes so that everyone has equal access to both online and contact education. We cannot reserve online education for the poor and face to face education for the rich and we are thus creating blending learning opportunities that couples the benefits of each teaching mode.

The revitalisation of Braamfontein in Johannesburg is essential if we are to attract exceptional academics and talented students. They need an environment conducive for them to work, live and play and we are thus working with the City and other public and private stakeholders to redevelop Braamfontein as a substantive hub for IT innovation, recreation, social innovation, recreation and residence space. The Tshimologong Precinct is already being developed while the IBM Research Lab, a R700 million investment and one of only 12 such centres in the world, will officially be launched in August 2016.

Transformation of the academy has been a key priority for the sector and a significant programme is currently being implemented in this regard. The transformation plan addresses issues related to transforming the academy, curriculum reform, promoting a diverse and cosmopolitan student experience, institutional culture, institutional naming, language policy, insourcing workers and student admissions.

Finally, none of these projects would be feasible without sustainable income. We have managed to diversify our income streams from the public and private sectors, individual donors and third stream income to enable change. Our donor income has increased every year since 2013. For example, an individual donated R100 million to Wits, one of largest grants from an individual. We are also on the verge of developing Frankenwald, a property in Joburg’s northern suburbs that we hope will serve as a key income stream for the University.

What are the kinds of partnerships, if any, that exist today between Wits and Nigerian universities?

Wits University has a direct relationship with Port Harcourt University where academics collaborate on issues related to petroleum research in particular. Individual academics have several ties to numerous Nigerian universities, based on their areas of research. However, the African Research Universities Association (ARUA) is a collaborative initiative formed by research-intensive universities in Africa to strengthen research and postgraduate training on the continent. Seventeen universities form part of this initiative, of which three are from Nigeria – the University of Lagos, the University of Ibadan and the Obafemi Awolowo University.

Please, give our readers a brief overview of the state of quality assurance in higher education on this continent. How can the quality of higher education institutions in Africa be continuously improved?

There are two ongoing initiatives aimed at tackling quality assurance issues in higher education on the continent, namely: (1) the Harmonization of African Higher Education Quality Assurance and Accreditation (HAQAA), which is funded by the European Union and (2) Benchmarking of African Universities, being developed by the World Bank as part of its project on Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology. What are your thoughts on these extra-continental initiatives?

I am particularly concerned about the quality of higher education offered on the continent. Following some of the structural adjustments made in the late 1970s, and despite assurances from various government agencies to the contrary, I believe that the quality of the programmes that we offer in some places on the continent, may be compromised. The issue of quality assurance is a priority for the Council for Higher Education in South Africa in its next round of institutional audits.

Quality can only be attained if there is significant investment from all stakeholders in the higher education systems on the continent, including the private and public sectors. In fact, a major recapitalisation of the higher education sectors across the continent is necessary if quality is to be maintained and indeed improved.

For sustainability, should efforts at entrenching a culture of quality in African higher education not be largely autochthonous?

No. African universities have to constantly balance the imperatives of building globally competitive universities with the demands to be nationally responsive, diverse and cosmopolitan. Thankfully these need not be mutually exclusive goals. There are some who hold that to be world class requires eschewing the national. In this view, to be world class means simply to imitate the foreign. However, it is precisely the responsiveness to one’s contextual specificities that enhances a university’s ability to make unique contributions to the global corpus of knowledge, and become globally competitive. Being world class requires not the imitation of the foreign, but the conquering of the local and the theorization of this to the global.

The production of research knowledge in Africa is unique and speaks to our strengths and context, but often our output and sometimes our quality is lower when compared to our peers around the world. The only way for us to adequately address this issue is for us to work collectively at the higher education system level to ensure that there is better harmonisation within the sector, that our policies are aligned and that there is mutual cooperation to ensure that we can adequately benchmark amongst ourselves and our peers.

You were in Nigeria recently as the keynote speaker at the 31st Annual Conference of the Association of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities held at the University of Jos. As your core message, you advocated differentiation in the Nigerian higher education system. What is differentiation and what are some of the pathways to it? You listed four key principles that should underlie a transition to a differentiated higher education system. How easily can universities implement the principles? Are there any universities on the continent which are in the process of undertaking such a transition?According to you, differentiation will enable universities to meet the demands to be nationally responsive, diverse and cosmopolitan. What would be the key benefits of differentiation to students, staff, institutions and a country such as Nigeria?

A differentiated higher education system enables responsiveness to the diverse and multiple needs of an economy and a society. It allows some universities to play a bigger role in the teaching of undergraduate students and the production of professionals, which is necessary if the economy is to become more productive and competitive. But it also allows other universities to focus on postgraduate students and undertake high level research, which are equally essential if nations are to develop a knowledge based economy of the 21st century. Such a higher education system must also have a Technical and Vocational Education and Training sector comprising colleges focused on producing graduates with vocational and applied skills. These different responsibilities require very different skill sets, institutional environments, and investment patterns. This is why they cannot be simply undertaken by a single type of institution.

In order for higher education to be capable of addressing the diverse and multiple needs of contemporary African societies, we need to fashion the development of a system based on 4 distinct principles.

It needs to be underscored that the research enterprise must be common to all of the universities. Even universities primarily focused on the teaching of undergraduate students must be engaged in research. How else can they guarantee that their academics are at the forefront of teaching the latest developments in their disciplinary fields? The only difference between these institutions and the more research intensive ones should be the quantity and the extent of the research obligations, and maybe even the type of research activities.
University executives and policy makers need to rid themselves of a status conception of the university system where research intensive universities are seen as more illustrious than their undergraduate teaching counterparts. Global ranking systems have also fostered this illusion, but it is destructive and silly, and not in the system’s and the nation’s interest. Far more important is for an institution to deliver on the educational mandate it has developed or been provided with.
Related to the above, the financing of the system must not assume this status hierarchy. Rather fund to the mandate required of each institution. Too often in the public discourse on universities, executives at the research intensive institutions have assumed that they should be the recipients of a larger largesse of funds. Their view has been contested by less privileged institutions that also make a larger claim on resources.
The higher education system must be flexible enough to allow institutions to progress from one institutional type to another should they so decide. Societies and their needs change over time, and institutions must be given the right to evolve in order to become responsive to these needs.

What level of resources would be needed to achieve any meaningful differentiation in a higher education system such as the Nigerian or South African?

There is an urgent need for African higher education institutions to be recapitalized. Even some of the well-endowed universities on the continent are under major threat as they are caught in the middle between not supporting them sufficiently and students demanding more from institutions.

Some characterize the three desiderata of higher education as high quality, reasonable cost and stakeholder satisfaction. From your experience as Vice Chancellor, how may these be simultaneously achieved?

I believe that these factors can be achieved in tandem but they are not the only desired outcomes in the 21st Century. Universities exist to create new knowledge, to find the solutions to complex societal problems, to promote social justice, to create problem-posers and problem-solvers and to celebrate the diversity of ideas, people and programmes, amongst other factors.

You alluded to escalating “managerial challenges” which Vice Chancellors in Africa must continually cope with. A large number of the challenges are invariably systemic while others are political headwinds. What should be an optimal way of selecting Vice Chancellors who would be expected to lead change and foster innovation?

Building and managing any university is a challenging task in the 21st Century, but it is even more so in Africa. This is because managerial challenges tend to be all the more acute. Structural poverty and inequality seep across institutional boundaries and force university executives to confront challenges such as starving students and residential overcrowding. Systemic disparities in education mean that limited state budgets get directed at primary and secondary education, with the result that higher education tends to be perpetually underfunded. I would think that in selecting and appointing a vice-chancellor there would be a need for the incumbent to be politically aware, financially savvy and academically astute to manage the very different tensions exerted from multiple stakeholders.

You make a distinction between a “transnational partnership” and a partnership in the true sense of internationalization. Frankly speaking, can poorly-funded and resource-strapped African universities afford to reject one or the other of these types of partnerships? Might the issue not be: how should universities organize their affairs to be able to benefit maximally from the two types of partnerships without playing subordinate roles to their peers?

Definitely. One of the key roles of ARUA will be to ensure that African universities have common policies and understanding to enable us to create sufficient negotiating power that will enable us to obtain maximum benefit from our international partnerships.

Generally, how can African higher education institutions avoid fuelling inequality among the world’s universities?

To be nationally and continently responsive, we must as a higher education system be able to address the structural poverty and inequality in our midst. For this to happen, we must produce sufficient quality graduates to work on the multiple diverse needs of our economies and societies, and we need to provide access to quality education for the many talented students from our poor and marginalized communities

There are loud criticisms of global rankings. The critics say that the rankings do not reflect African realities. Do you think this is true? Do you think Africa should develop its own ranking model?

Many ranking systems use different methodologies and their results must therefore be approached with a level of measured circumspection. While we should use rankings as a proxy, we should not be detracted by ranking systems. Our focus should instead be on building nationally responsive and globally competitive institutions that are demographically diverse and cosmopolitan. Should we do this well, we would be responsive to our mandate of producing socially conscious and globally competitive African professionals and citizens for the 21st Century. This should be our primary focus, and if we do this well, it will become evident in the results of the more established and relevant ranking systems.

What would be your parting message for African governments, scholars and university administrators in respect of the issues addressed in this interview?

The African academy’s response to the challenge of quality and global competitiveness must take into account that universities are products of political systems, and their agendas and funding. We must reconcile the need for locally relevant national development priorities with a commitment to international education for the global good. Ultimately, an African higher education system that is accessible and transformed, nationally responsive and globally competitive, diverse and cosmopolitan would not only be good for each respective nation, but also for the global academy. It would allow African institutions to develop and imbibe the corpus of scientific knowledge, apply it to our context, reimagine and innovate it, and contribute it back to the global academy. It will also allow us to produce graduates that are simultaneously African and Human; citizens of both the nation and the globe. This is, after all, the primary responsibility of any university in the 21st Century.