This is how to build a world-class African university
Rhodes will fall today. After several weeks of protest, the Council of the University of Cape Town ratified the decision to temporarily move the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from its central position on campus. The removal is a victory for the #RhodesMustFall campaign, which has, despite the attempts of some groups to score cheap political points, continued to insist that the aim is to fight institutionalized racism and a colonial heritage that marginalizes black South Africans. Listening to SRC chairperson Ramabina Mahapa, I find that I agree with many of his sentiments: Why must we have Latin music at South African graduation ceremonies? Why not African drums? Why must Jameson Hall only have paintings of white men? Why can’t African universities feel more African?
One further aim of the #RhodesMustFall campaign is to demand positions for more black academics at South African universities. And a curriculum that is not so Eurocentric.
It’s of course much easier to change a hall of paintings or a graduation procession than to change the demographic make-up of university staff. But because it is difficult doesn’t make it less important. Now that Rhodes has fallen, let’s consider how to change the racial profile of our top universities. I’ll focus on the challenges at UCT and Stellenbosch, which I consider as the two best universities in South Africa. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings list both of them in the top 300 universities globally. And because I understand the context, I will also focus on my own field – Economics.
Let’s be clear: there is no easy way to resolve the issue. There is no reservoir of unemployed black professors in South Africa. Take Economics. The best and brightest black talent we graduate find incredibly lucrative offers in banks and financial institutions (Nedbank, Allan Gray), consultancies (KPMG, Bain, Genesis), or government (national and provincial treasuries, or the Reserve Bank). These jobs are often in the metropolitan areas of Gauteng that are more appealing (and more affordable) for young black graduates to live, than sleepy Stellenbosch or quiet Cape Town. From the student’s perspective the pull-factors are strong.
The main task of universities is to do ground-breaking research that can make a fundamental difference to how we understand the world and interact with it. One way to judge which universities are the best at this is to consider the objective rankings that are published annually (there are now three global rankings that are generally considered the norm, including a Chinese one). The way you improve in these rankings is to improve the quality of your research, i.e. the scholars at your institution must undertake research that can be published in top international journals. The best way to access these top journals is to spend some time in America, because US universities remain at the frontier of science. China understands this. Every year, China sends 250 000 of their best students to study at US universities. (Chinese students make up 31% of all international students in the US.)
It is only slightly ironic that during the same week of the Rhodes protests at UCT, Rhodes House in Oxford announced a new deal with the Chinese government to extent the Rhodes scholarships to Chinese students. (This was apparently on request of the Chinese after discussions of 18 months.) If our universities are to improve their international rankings, we need to appoint scholars with experience of studying in the US (and, to some extent, Europe and Australia). That is why in the Economics Departments of UCT and Pretoria you will find a large contingent of foreign scholars. They bring expertise which not only improve the research quality of their institution, but also introduce their students to techniques and networks (and funding) that are world class. Can we really improve as a discipline if we remain isolated from the rest of the world, teaching the next generation the obsolete science of the past? No. As The Economist wrote two weeks ago, the world is going to university. If we are to deliver students that can compete on an equal footing with the rest of the world, our universities should appoint and promote those that work at the frontier of science.
This, in my opinion, suggests that we have to ask a different question. Instead of attempting to find answers to how we can employ more black scholars, we should be asking how can we ensure that our brightest black students attain the qualifications and experience to become world-class researchers. The latter question seems to have more clear-cut answers: we need to follow the Chinese example. A large scholarship programme for black South Africans to study at US universities will allow our students access to the best minds in the world. (If we want the same proportion as the Chinese, we should be sending 12500 students annually!) Even Robert Mugabe understands this. He has a scholarship programme for the best Zimbabwean students to study at South African universities.
Imagine 12500 black students returning every year with a degree from a top US university! Most of them will find well-paying jobs in the private sector or government, where they will contribute to the economy by creating jobs or better policies. (Here’s another interesting fact: Iran has more US-graduated PhDs in its cabinet than the US Congress.) But a small minority of these returning students, perhaps only 50, will want an academic job because of the great lifestyle and the fulfillment that comes from scientific breakthroughs.
And, you know what, universities country-wide will fall over their feet to appoint these graduates. Because that, they will know, is how you build a world-class African university.