In our view

Endless options to fund higher education - 2 Aug 2011 - Business Day

By Nazli Abrahams

GOVERNMENT funding for higher education has deteriorated to such an extent that most institutions are now "state assisted" or "state affiliated" rather than "state funded". Universities in SA get less than half their funding directly from the government and the brakes have been put on annual above-inflation fee increases as a way to plug the financial gap.

 We are also fast outliving our "developing nation" status that helped secure significant support from international donors during and after the struggle. Per capita, SA has received more donor funding for education than probably any other country in the world during the past three decades but we can no longer rely on past generosity. Increasingly, we are going to need to win support, in open competition, for research and developmental projects from donors.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande recently appointed a task team to review the current funding framework for higher education and, although the recommendations are due out only next year, it is clear our institutions need to look much more seriously at ways of generating "third-stream funding", whether it be through donations, investments, research contracts or other entrepreneurial activities.

As the rector at the University of the Western Cape, Brian O’Connell, said recently, the challenge for SA’s universities is not simply to exploit the market in order to secure its share. We must create that market by convincing our nation that universities are indeed the lifeblood of the nation and that they must be supported if we are to endure. And he’s right.

Part of the challenge is educating people about the importance of education and reminding them that universities change the world. That is why they exist. Somewhere on a university campus, a cure will be found for cancer and HIV and Alzheimer’s disease. Universities should be where those things happen.

Although some tertiary institutions have well-established alumni relations and fundraising structures, most higher learning institutions don’t really know how to get their alumni to stump up and invest in their future.

The huge sums secured by "advancement" and fundraising professionals for universities in countries such as the US are legendary. In the past couple of months alone, Western Michigan University pocketed a $100m gift, Tulane University received a $50m pledge for undergraduate scholarships, and the Yale Alumnus donated $50m towards the School of Engineering. And that’s the point really.

The practice of "advancement" is not just a euphemism for fundraising. It is about building, maintaining and improving support, skills and funds for your projects, departments and higher education institutions. 

"Advancement" is about finding common cause with those who have similar values and aspirations and those who want to give their time, talent and financial resources to worthy organisations and institutions. And then it’s about how that cause can be advanced to yield tangible, sustainable improvements and practically realise your common goals. 

It’s about moving the organisation forward and advancing your goals, which is why everyone, from the vice-chancellor down, needs to get involved. 

But building educational capital and enhancing collaboration between foundations, individual philanthropists and other institutions requires investment and expertise.

Those willing to put their hands in their pocket and pull out a six-figure sum expect time and money to be spent on them. Wilmot James, who currently serves on Parliament’s portfolio committee for education, argues that the government should support universities’ fundraising operations, even if it is just to pay the salaries of the professionals who can make it happen. 

While I don’t expect we will be able to secure gifts, bequests and donations as staggeringly large as our US colleagues in the short term, we can certainly achieve better levels of giving and enhance our capacity to support higher education if we devote adequate resources, energy and expertise to the task.

 The possibilities are endless.

 • Abrahams is programme manager at the South African Institute for Advancement — Inyathelo. The institute will be running a Spring School next month aimed at helping higher education institutions mobilise resources and tap into new sources of funding.