This opinion piece by Professor Cheryl De La Rey was published in the Pretoria News (late final) on 20 September 2013
WHILE the private and individual benefits of higher education are widely recognised, there has been debate about public benefits of university education. Empirical research shows that investment in higher education "pays off" in terms of economic growth, employment rates and improved quality of life.
University education brings benefits not only to the individual in the form of better employment prospects, higher income and positive life outcomes in general; it also confers significant benefits on the society as a whole.
This is true for both developed and developing countries, in the form of lower levels of corruption, improvements in the quality of public administration and health and well-being.
Nonetheless, the question of the role of universities in national development, and as part of a social compact, continues to be the subject of debate.
At the turn of the 20th century, as the concept of the knowledge economy gained momentum, the global debate tended to focus on the role played by universities in stimulating innovation and economic growth.
The notion of a triple-helix was widely used to refer to relationships between higher education, industry and government, suggesting that effective, collaborative and seamless partnerships across these three sectors could lead to advances in technology and innovation.
These advances in turn would produce higher economic growth and enhance international competitiveness. This approach led to a re-visioning of the role of universities in national development and the coining of notions such as "entrepreneurial universities" and "universities for innovation".
These conceptualisations of the role of universities in national development have often been criticised as too narrow to address the range of challenges faced by developing countries like South Africa.
One of the reasons is that experience has shown that the conceptualisation of innovation and economic growth in terms of indicators such as gross national product or gross domestic product are often inadequate.
South Africa, for example, experienced strong positive economic growth in the first decade of democracy, but this did not lead to a reduction in poverty or widespread improvement in the quality of life.
As our understanding of development has broadened to embrace goals such as equitable distribution of resources and services, so too has the conceptualisation of the role of universities in national development become more complex and diverse.
After the new democratic dispensation, South African higher education policy supported the concept of engagement through the expectation that universities "demonstrate social responsibility".
There have been numerous conferences and workshops and papers published on how to interpret community engagement or social responsiveness.
But simply put: universities are expected to produce graduates who are not only skilled and ready for employment, but who are also able to exercise good citizenship.
With respect to research, public universities are expected to focus on research that is of direct benefit to national development.
The debate about the role of universities is heavily influenced by pressures related to their financing. Governments in many parts of the world, concerned about the performance of public higher education institutions in meeting national goals, have revised funding systems, planning and reporting requirements in an attempt to steer the performance of universities.
Several public officials have called for a social compact between universities and the government, with some proponents including industry as an important third stakeholder.
The role of business and private or philanthropic funding in helping universities realise their role as drivers of development will be explored at a leadership retreat hosted by Inyathelo: The SA Institute for Advancement in November.
It's the first time that university vicechancellors, business leaders and philanthropists will come together on a structured forum to critically explore what is needed to ensure that our universities maintain their excellence and provide the graduates and research required to advance South Africa.
What is clear is that universities are battling to meet the growing range of expectations of them, especially since they are unlikely to receive a significant increase in resources.
Our national estimates show that there are more than 2 million youths between the ages 18 and 24 who are not in education, training or employment. South Africa faces severe shortages of artisans, technicians, teachers, nurses and vocational and technical expertise in many other areas.
At the same time, there is a dire need to increase the proportion of graduates, particularly in engineering, science, technology and medicine, as well as those pursuing doctoral degrees and ultimately the academia.
No single university can adequately address these multiple challenges. Instead, the issues may best be addressed by looking at the role of higher education as a system with many equally important institutions.
Countries and perhaps more so for developing countries, where there are serious resource constraints, need to conceptualise and implement a national tertiary education system that is diverse and differentiated.
Notions of entrepreneurial universities, triple-helix relationships and engaged universities need not be viewed as discrete and separate, but as different pathways to contributing to the development and growth of our country
Professor Cheryl De La Rey is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria. She will also be one of the guest speakers at the Inyathelo Leadership Retreat for universities, philanthropists and business leaders in Cape Town between November 4 and 6.