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South Africa signals change to ‘unrealistic’ research policy

South Africa’s policy of trying to get all universities to produce research of the same quality is “unrealistic”, according to a Department for Higher Education and Training green paper published on 12 January.

The document, which sets out the department’s desire to increase the proportion of young South Africans attending university, says institutions cannot all aim for the same research activity.

“The current policy and regulatory environment assumes that all universities should aim to have comparable research outcomes and performance should be comparable to that of the top performing institutions. This is unrealistic, given their differential capacities and histories,” it states.

Previously disadvantaged universities should be supported in developing research capacity in specific areas but should focus on their teaching and learning mission, the paper says. It stops short of proposing withdrawal of university status from poorly performing institutions.

The paper says that funding systems tend to reward research over teaching in research-intensive institutions, which entrenches historical inequalities. Stimulus funding to change this state of affairs is being considered by the department.

“Improving research capacity will be a major focus for universities, with a particular focus on research to meet our developmental objectives,” Blade Nzimande, the universities minister, said in a statement.

The department wants to raise university enrolments from the current figure of about 900,000 to 1.5 million by 2030.

Many academics were on holiday and unavailable for comment when the green paper was unveiled.

Marian Shinn, science spokeswoman for the Democratic Alliance opposition party, said the idea of specialist research universities was worth pursuing. However, given the financial and bureaucratic constraints on universities, institutions could also investigate the feasibility of connecting researchers with high-speed broadband to share scarce expertise. Existing centres of excellence should form the basis for such “virtual research universities,” she said.

The Green Paper is open for public comment. Written responses should reach the DHET by 30 April.