Johan Fourie's blog

I'd rather be a comma than a fullstop

Archive for September 2015

Fort Hare deserves a better future

with one comment

Two former graduates of the University of Fort Hare: Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela

Two former graduates of the University of Fort Hare: Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela

Imagine a university that trained most of the leaders of the largest political party of a country. A university which educated many past and existing leaders of several other countries. A university which trained thousands of doctors, lawyers and other civil servants. A university which educated a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

This university would be the flagship of any country’s education system, yet in South Africa it is not. Fort Hare, despite its illustrious history, is not ranked in the top 10 universities in South Africa. It barely makes it into the top 100 in Africa.

And, unfortunately, UFH seems poised to remain there.  The university has a R100-million deficit. It has reportedly used National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) money – intended to subsidise students from poor backgrounds – to pay staff salaries. And only last Friday it emerged that the university’s registrar, Prof Mike Somniso‚ was recorded saying to a colleague that he will unleash the ANC’s uMkhonto weSizwe military veterans on DASO, the Democratic Alliance’s Student Organisations that, surprisingly, won the Student Representative Council elections last year. Let’s think carefully about that: a university registrar calling for violence against students.

Here is Max du Preez on Facebook about the recording:

So how come this is not a scandal in South Africa? A senior administrator at a university planning violent attacks on student leaders to make it impossible for groups other than the ANC to operate on campus? Where is the reaction of the minister of Higher Education – this was revealed on Friday morning already. Have we written off Fort Hare as an academic institution? Isn’t it perhaps time to launch an ‪#‎OpenFortHare‬ campaign?

It is difficult not to become cynical about the attempts on other South African campuses to reform higher education when Fort Hare, a beacon of hope for many black scholars in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa during apartheid’s darkest days, is withering away. Just imagine, some would say, what the response would have been had a UCT or Stellenbosch or Wits registrar called for violence against students!

Instead, we find a deafening silence. No resignation. No national twitter campaign ostracizing the individual or institution. No call to appear before Parliament’s Higher Education Portfolio Committee. (To be sure, UFH was due to appear on the 23rd of September to explain the charges of fraud, but the meeting was postponed indefinitely.)

Those of us who care deeply about the state of higher education in South Africa are left bewildered. What will it take to transform Fort Hare (and many of the other formerly black universities) into a national asset that can deliver minds that can contribute to a more prosperous South Africa? Funding? Management? Student activism? I don’t know, but the many brilliant minds that go there – I know, one of my own PhD students is a former graduate – deserve better.

I don’t want to belittle the legitimate demands for transformation at South Africa’s top universities. But the number of classrooms and lecturers at these universities are simply too few to provide a quality education to all who want it. If we want to improve South Africa, we – the government, yes, but also civil society like the campus movements pushing for change – need to shine a light on all places that can provide quality education for thousands of students who won’t find places at (or cannot afford) the top universities. That includes Fort Hare.

This is currently not happening, which means that the financial mismanagement and the utterances of a registrar is not delivering on Fort Hare’s vision of In lumine tuo videbimus lumen (In Thy Light We See Light), a vision that had inspired the likes of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Robert Sobukwe and Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

We need to #LightUpFortHare. Their future students (and the legends of the past) deserve nothing less.

Written by Johan Fourie

September 30, 2015 at 07:33

What we can learn from university rankings (and the Chinese)

with one comment

The Masters in Statistics at Columbia in 2015: Any guesses where these students are from?

The 2015 Masters class in Statistics at Columbia University: Any guesses where these students are from?

Last week I presented a paper at the Economic History Association conference in Nashville, Tennessee. As with the two earlier EHA meetings I attended (in 2010 and 2013), what impressed me was not only the quality and sophistication of the research, but the breadth of the topics and questions investigated. I listened to excellent presentations on how labour scarcity during the American Civil War affected racial relations afterwards (Tim Larson), on how concessions given to private companies in the Congo Free State affects development outcomes today (Sara Lowes and Eduardo Montero), on how the spread of malaria in the US South raised the price of slaves immune to the disease (Elena Esposito), and on how US military investments during World War II had absolutely no long-term impact on local industrialization (Taylor Jaworski). (A story in the South African press this morning suggests that our own government’s attempts to stimulate local manufacturing through investment in military technology, the Centu­rion Aerospace Village, has yielded very few returns…) For the economists: what made these papers great were their transparent and innovative identification strategies, coupled with a simple but strong narrative. The full conference programme is available here.

The scale and scope of such world-class research in the US is reflected in the latest QS World University Rankings that was released last week. Ten of the world’s top 20 universities are in the US, and 18 of the top 50. In economics, the US advantage is even more dominant: 15 of the top 20 Economics departments are  at US universities, and 21 of the top 50. Which explains why US universities attract the best talent from across the world, notably India and China.

As I’ve written before, if African countries are to benefit from globalization and innovation, it needs to send its students to places that can offer them elite education. That is why China sends 250 000 of their students to US universities every year. Some remain in the US afterwards, but most return, improving the quality of teaching and research at Chinese universities. Just look at how fast Chinese universities are moving up the QS rankings and you will realise the benefits of this system.

Despite what many might say, these rankings are important and becoming more so. Potential students use them to determine which university to attend, potential employees use them to decide where to apply for a job, scholars use them to choose where to spend a sabbatical or with whom to collaborate, and funding institutions use them to judge applications. For that reason it is great to see that Stellenbosch University, my home for the last fifteen years, is moving steadily up the rankings, from position 390 last year to 302 in the current edition. That progress is the result of incentives to produce quality research (Stellenbosch is in the top 100 universities globally in terms of citations received, the only university to break the top 100 in Africa). In the overall list, the University of Cape Town fell slightly to 171, but it remains the highest-ranked African university.

South African universities face the dual challenge of having to racially transform their staff body and improving their competitiveness. These are often seen as competing, mutually exclusive challenges, but I don’t think that is necessarily the case. Achieving transformation and competitiveness simultaneously will, however, require different (and possibly more demanding) solutions than only focusing on one or the other.

The answer is to look beyond our shores. Very few South African students end up at US universities. Importantly: very few black South African students study towards an (Economics) PhD in the US. This needs to change: We need to do much more to encourage our best and brightest (black) students to study abroad. Such a strategy, I believe, is the only sustainable way to transform the South African academic landscape within a generation from mostly white to mostly black, while continuing to move up the rankings ladder.

A strong higher education sector has massive spillovers for the rest of the economy too. There is no reason Africa cannot aim for at least two or three universities in the top 100. Because of our location and affordability, South Africa can become a hub for the best and brightest African scholars. Exporting higher education services is a comparative advantage we should exploit. And students often remain in the country where they study; some of the most innovative (and most transformative) companies in the world were started by immigrant students who moved to the States to study. Think Google and Tesla.

The problem is the poor incentives for South African universities to make this happen. The Department of Higher Education gives large financial rewards to universities for each PhD that graduates. In contrast, there are no rewards for sending your best (black) students to go and study in the States. That means that universities do their best to hold on to their best students instead of encouraging them to obtain a degree from a higher-ranked university elsewhere, even though that might be in the student’s best interest. In addition, PhD bursaries are frequently available for South African students studying here, while a first year of studies in the States can be in excess of R500 000. (Fortunately only the first year is usually expensive; thereafter research and teaching positions can help.)

This is a market failure where the South African government should intervene. So here is my request to Minister Nhlanhla Nene: Do as China does (see picture). Provide several hundred bursaries for students to study in the States. Some of them will (and should) remain behind; for example, a South African Economics professor at Harvard will yield long-term returns for the South African economy in terms of research questions and collaboration. But many of the graduates will return to South Africa, filling positions vacated by a retiring, white professoriate. That is how you transform into a world-class African university.

As I write this, I discover an online article about the tragic events of the last few days at the University of Kwazulu-Natal. Early on Thursday, a Westville campus residence was torched. On Sunday night, two cars and the building which houses the office of vice-chancellor Albert van Jaarsveld were torched. You don’t need a PhD to realise that this is not a sustainable way to transform the South African academic landscape. Instead, let’s look at ways to send our intellectually gifted to the best universities in the world. And bring them back to train and teach the next generation of engineers, computers scientists and… economic historians.

The lives of others

leave a comment »


Yesterday Helanya and I attended an art exhibition during Utrecht’s classical music festival (when in Rome…). The exhibition was on the topic of privacy, and several young artists exhibited their projects. There’s this Danish guy who travels to distant countries so he can be photographed by obscure security cameras. (He always wears the same clothes.) And this Dutch guy who exhibits pictures of beautiful desert hills, and then explains that these are the backgrounds of the beheading videos released in August 2014. And this Swiss guy who takes pictures of the hyper-secure bunkers that store plant, animal and human data. And this British guy who creates CCTV images of the 100 most powerful Londoners. Here’s his explanation:

A few months after the 2011 riots in London, the police handed out leaflets showing grainy, security camera images of youngsters who had supposedly taken part in the violence. But is a photo without context, analysis or interpretation of the facts sufficient to prove someone’s guilt, just because they have been caught on CCTV? By mimicking CCTV images of the 100 most powerful Londoners (according to British magazine Square Mile), I turn the cameras back on their controllers. I do not set out to assign blame but rather to draw attention to the ease with which the youngsters were pilloried while these influential individuals have remained comfortably anonymous. Just as it is impossible to be sure that the youngsters portrayed by the police are criminals, we cannot conclude that the people shown here had any involvement in the global financial crisis. My point is: in an age of visual control, the way in which images are produced and used can impact our assumptions about the truth.

I thought it was fantastic.

But my favourite was a small project by Milan Rijnders*, a Dutch art student. Earlier this year, Milan stopped a tourist in Amsterdam and asked to take his photo. He agreed and gave Milan his email address to send him a copy of the photo. Milan then decided to find out as much as he could about this man, but limiting himself to only using Facebook. The result is extraordinary: in a collage shown in the gallery (see photo), Milan has outlined the life of Canadian Mikael Labrecque, the man he photographed in Amsterdam. He has pictures of him travelling abroad, of his girlfriend, of their families and extended families, even pictures of them and their families’ cats and dogs. All from an email address.

Where are the boundaries between public and private? How much of our lives do we want to be known, recorded, downloadable? I work a lot with historical information of (mostly dead) people. I always wish for more data, but perhaps there’s a limit to what we need to preserve. In the era of Big Data, future historians’ challenge will not be too little information but too much.

When Milan told Mikael of his project, he wasn’t upset. In fact, he seems to have been indifferent. As Milan notes, his reaction is perhaps illustrative of a whole generation of Facebook users who seem barely aware of the public access of the material they post. The secret lives of others are, for good or bad, more visible than we might think.

PS: Two years ago, Milan also made this short film about a Dutch rugby player. See if you can spot the Stormers jersey.

Written by Johan Fourie

September 7, 2015 at 22:08

Posted in Art, History

Tagged with , , , ,