Scholarly publishing as a transformation issue in South Africa

With the Higher Education Transformation Summit taking place in Cape Town on 22 April, universities have been in a reflective phase, examining their success – or lack of it – in achieving post-apartheid transformation. The report card shows that we are achieving a great deal, but could try harder. There is still a way to go before all our students and academics feel they are in institutions that are really their home.
No-one seems to have noticed the elephant in the room. In all the discussions, I see very little attention being paid to the role that scholarly communication and publication plays in the transformation process. We talk about the demographic profiles of our universities, yet we do not seem to question the communication environment that students and staff are immersed in and the values that are reflected there.
Why is it, for example, that, as the South African Minister of Higher Education and Training , Blade Nzimande, complained at the UNESCO 29th World Conference on Higher Education that ‘there is a gender imbalance throughout higher education systems especially in leadership positions.’ in his keynote address at the Transformation Summit, he picked up on the fact that the average age of academics continues to rise and that there has been a drop in the number of staff under the age of 30? Does the publishing system that is so central in determining who is promoted and rewarded play a role in these demographics? Is this an alien environment for the young scholars that the universities want so badly to attract? Do students and researchers find their own, African, world reflected adequately in the scholarly resources that they have access to? Are the values that our researchers hold reflected in the ways in which they are supported in publishing their research?
What we have to remember is that South African national policy on scholarly publishing rewards universities – with substantial financial incentives – for publishing in scholarly journals in the international citation indexes and in a much shorter list of local accredited journals. It is no surprise that greater recognition is given to international publications in this system in the national and institutional reward and rating systems. Yet I believe that we do not adequately examine what kind of discourse is reflected in the publications that are so valued and how that impacts on those who are under-represented and marginalized in our universities.
Our new Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, does appear to understand these issues. In the course of his speeches as he has settled into his new role, he has made a number of pertinent statements about the limitations of the current system. What I would like to see is the translation of these perceptions into an investigation into how policy for scholarly publication could better serve the transformation of our universities, to demonstrate, as the University of Cape Town Vice-Chancellor, Max Price put it, ‘how to make the African the global.’
One of Nzimande’s first speeches was at the session on Africa at the UNESCO 29th World Conference on Higher Education. It opened like this:

Although progress has been made in HE provision in Africa, it is obvious that over the last few decades some things have not changed. There has been no significant break in relations of knowledge production between the colonial and post-colonial eras. African universities are essentially consumers of knowledge produced in developed countries. In essence what is being defined as ‘knowledge society’ means two different things to the developed world and the African continent. The former are the producers and the latter are the consumers of knowledge, which seriously undermines the fostering of the multicultural nature of Higher Education, as virtually all partnerships are one-sided.

Then, speaking at the Women in Science Awards, identifying the marginalization of women in South African higher education, he said that:

Our universities, in particular, should be directing their research focus to address the development and social needs of our communities. The impact of their research should be measured by how much difference it makes to the needs of our communities, rather than by just how many international citations researchers receive in their publications. Therefore, in awarding excellence in research due consideration should be given to how much change has happened as a result of research from our institutions of higher learning, including improving the living conditions of the majority of our people most of whom are women.

The answer is, of course, that our universities do in fact produce a great deal of research that makes a difference to the needs of our communities, but it is not valued or rewarded in the dominant policy systems. In another speech, Nzimande complained that we seem to have lost the impetus of anti-apartheid activities in the universities such as ‘campus-based quasi-NGOs like the education policy units, trade union support units, rural development or built-environment research and development initiatives.’ Again, the answer is that these research units are very much around, producing research papers, technical papers, policy briefs and community resources and placing these online on university websites for free access. Yet these are not being recognised, in comparison with the status accorded to the publication of journal articles.
To give Nzimande the last word, from a speech at the University of Johannesburg on challenges facing the higher education system:

Of course, we do need to strive for excellence, to produce more PhDs, do cutting edge research and compete with the best in the world. However, I believe that at this stage of our development, the main thrust of our curricula and our research should be in the context of understanding and resolving our own society’s needs. This is not a call for parochialism or for not engaging with the best minds and the best knowledge produced in universities and research institutions from across the globe. But it is a call to engage much more fully than we have in the past with South African realities and the realities of Africa and the developing world in general.
The point I want to make here is that perennial issues such as this deserve the attention of our best social scientists and to be brought to the attention to all our students.

Exactly. It would be good to have further research and debate on this and see it included in the discussion of transformation in our universities.

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