Glenda Kruss, Mariette Visser, Mogau Aphane and Genevieve Haupt, Academic interaction with social partners: investigating the contribution of universities to economic and social development, HSRC Press, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa, 2012, Pages , 288, ISBN 978-0-7969-2390-5
Universities have always been looked upon as an index of the intellectual apotheosis of a nation. They are also the source of identities to a nation. The first things that comes to our mind when we talk of, say England is Oxford and Cambridge and not its bombers or nuclear weapons. The monograph in question tries to map the economic and social interaction of the universities vis-a -vis the communities about them which are variously defined.
The immediate reason of this study is the direction given by the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC) to the universities to increase their community engagement in South Africa. This focus was the consequence of the emphasis on redressing past inequalities and “a systematic integration of community engagement in relation to the three-fold mission of “teaching, research and service”. The monograph aims to capture the current levels of this community engagement as they existed, as well as the impact of HEQC directives. The universities chosen are not named though they can be found out. It is not clear why they chose not be named. There is nothing like a university which is transparent and in the case of present study there is nothing to be ashamed of even in case of the adverse results because universities work in an economic and social context which may not always be conducive to their full development. Universities have a life of their own in a socio-economic context and designating them as some monoliths with a singular focus is not doing justice to those dynamic forces which shape them. But here the universities have been designated as: Research University (1), Research University (2), University of Technology, Comprehensive University, and Rural University. These designations have their problems. For example it is hard to know the distinction between research University 1 and research University 2 from these designations as these don’t give the contexts and niche in which they operate. This would have not been an issue if they had been actually named. It is again difficult to visualize University of technology as being a monolith of technology spawning technologies one after another without a context. However this is more an argument against the University culture in South Africa than of this specific monograph. In short this secrecy is positively harmful in the analysis of the issue at hand.
The conceptual framework and the analysis
The conceptual framework has evolved from an integration of two distinct lines of thinking about the role of universities in community development: the first one is about marketing the research done at the universities to the market. This implies marketization of the cutting edge frontiers of the technology that universities are supposed to produce. In South African case this was done by giving patents to the knowledge that universities produce on the lines of US - Bah-Doyle act in 2008. This aspect treats universities as machines for economic development. The second line of thinking treats the universities as sources of civic engagement which contribute to the social progress of the communities in which they exist. This is especially important in developing countries which have their own social systems that have evolved in their domestic contexts. A bigger focus is on the inclusiveness of the technology for human development. The integration of these two have formed the background to the framework in this monograph. The specific name given in this case is Academic Scholarship which “….involves generating, transmitting, applying and preserving knowledge for the direct benefit of external social partners in ways that are consistent with University and unit missions” (page 191). The interaction partners have been defined into broadly 6 sets viz firm partners, academic partners, community partners, welfare partners, government partners and civil society partners based on the results of principle component analysis. Even though it is a very broad generalization, it encompasses some of the trends that come out of this project. They include some eminently expected results such that the maximum frequency of engagement with firm partners is found in University of technology. Similar is the case of Rural University with community partners as well as welfare partners. In both University of Technology as well as Rural University maximum frequency of interaction (among the five universities in this study; which is not to say optimal or good enough) with government partners though for different reasons. Civil society partners are also maximally engaged with Rural University and least engaged with research universities. This reflects not just the poor level of community engagement of the universities in general but also is an index of the type of research that research institutes in developing world focus on. It is usually out of context to the needs that these countries have for both basic and applied research. Conversely the fact that Rural University engages least frequently with firm partners is also an index of the metropolitan bias of the firms as well as the inability of Rural University to provide a meaningful research product to the firms. Even otherwise the engagement with external social partners is mainly academic and informal. A disaggregation of the community engagement in the various universities gives the impression that these universities have tried to speed up their engagement under the direction of HEQC while keeping intact their basic focus for example. At the Research University 1 whose major focus is international academic recognition, local needs and demands have been embedded within the broader objectives of the University. This gives a feeling of super imposed institutionalization which has not been allowed to evolve organically from its own grassroots in accordance with its own perceived need of international recognition. At Research University 2, with its focus on development the interaction with external social partners has not changed much given that the community engagement has always been accepted as pivotal to University academic culture. It is also reflected in the maximum frequency of engagements with academic partners compared to other universities in the study. The focus on academic interaction has not however been translated into a more active engagement with other social partners like civil societies and other communities. We find at the University of Technology that the external interaction is defined mostly with other firms and government partners; this shows the lack of will to engage with local innovators /innovation communities at the grassroots level (informal sector). To be precise the focus of this University is not different when compared to other similar universities from the developing nations who focus on stars and galaxies using the rubric of “advanced/ cutting edge research” whilst the local problems and issues are overlooked which otherwise demand an immediate attention. It is again questionable whether we can demand a same level of commitment to the various external social partners from this university as we can from say some other more socially located University like Rural University. The Rural University has a broader paradigm of engagement with external social partners compared to all other universities. This is reflected in the high scores it gets in the engagement with government, community, welfare partners and civil society partners. This however is not meant to say that community engagement has got a universal acceptance even in the University itself. However, the niche it is located in makes it inevitable to engage with external social partners and could be a fine example of grassroots evolution of University community engagement. Finally, at the comprehensive University we find the resistance to change and the motivation to incorporate new HEQC directives very low compared to the other four universities. The focus which had so far been on academic and firm engagement has continued even after HEQC directives. This however has to be seen in the context of merger and the forging of new identity at this comprehensive University.
An analysis of the above bears out some stark conclusions: First and foremost is that academic scholarship is a concept that is here to stay and it should be spread further. This, however, should be allowed to evolve across the different higher education centers. The job of an audit mechanism should be to allow its evolution speed up itself. The dynamic adjustment of these interactions is better left to the universities themselves. There is no reason to expect the social engagement to be similar in a technology University and a Rural University. Allowing these differences to express themselves will make it a much more enriching experience both for the universities themselves as well as the community. In addition the sheer amount of data present here, with all its shortcomings (based as it is on convenience sampling), will be hopefully helpful in creating an ecosystem for general acceptance of community engagement in the intellectual circles. Keeping all these in mind this monograph is an excellent work and is sure to become a guiding light for further research in this field.