On the second day of the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) Open Access conference last week, the penny suddenly dropped. From the start, the signs were good – the conference, which followed on from the SARUA Vice-Chancellors’ triennial congress, was, after all, focused on open access. The Chair of SARUA, Professor Njabulo Ndebele of the University of Cape Town, the Botswana Minister of Education, J D Nkate and the CEO of SARUA, Piyushi Kotecha, opened the conference with strong statements on the value of Open Access in their respective constituencies. This is echoed on the SARUA website which, unusually for a university association site, acknowledges the importance of dissemination as a core value and makes a clear statement of its commitment to Open Access both as one of its programme areas and as a core principle, as well as its policy for its own communications. The central statement is perhaps this:
Promoting Open Access for increased quality research, enhanced collaboration, and the sharing and dissemination of knowledge, is a central principle for SARUA’s work. The Association is already engaging with groups and networks of expertise and good practice locally and globally in order to support the development of Open Access benefits for HE.
At the conference, the comments of these opening speakers did not therefore appear to be glib statements of openness as a worthy value, but seemed firmly embedded in a recognition of the need to create equity for the developing world in its contribution to global knowledge. What emerged, particularly from Piyushi Kotecha, was a vision which could move SARUA universities on from the current post-colonial reliance on the North for standards for research competence, to a situation in which they could promote their own competence as knowledge producers. As Alma Swan commented later in the proceedings, she thought that, with hindsight, the Open Access movement should perhaps have named itself Open Dissemination, to get away from the implicit dependence on access to knowledge from the North-West that can sometimes emerge in development-speak. And it goes further than Open Access alone. Universities in the southern African region, Piyushi Kotecha went on to say, need to explore open research and open science in order to become research intensive in the next 10-20 years, making a contribution not only to global scholarly communications, but also creating links between research, teaching and learning, and ensuring the contribution of universities to socio-economic development in the region.
This is an enlightened view and if it does indeed underpin future policy initiatives by universities and governments in the region, it could well help move the SARUA constituency on from the contradictions and blockages that currently undermine the effectiveness of South African research dissemination policy, to a more effective role in achieving research impact. This could go some way to giving the region a leadership role on the continent.
This was great, but something continued to nag at the back of my mind. In the Minister’s speech and in some of the questions and comments from the Vice-Chancellors attending the conference, there seemed to be a slippage between Open Access as I would understand it – dissemination and publication systems that, as Alma Swan summed it up, are ‘freely available, publicly available and permanently online’ – and another vision that was only obliquely alluded to, of Open Access as access to universities for students. This question continued to hover as Amanda Barratt, of the UCT Law Library (which, incidentally, hosts Lawspace, the UCT law department repository) talked illuminatingly on open access and human rights and the failure of proprietary IP systems to deliver necessary development goals, particularly in an African context. Something began to crystallise as Andrew Rens, of the Shuttleworth Foundation spoke about Text, Hypertext and Rent Seeking, charting the differences between the linear and contained world of printed text and the fluidity of the read-write web, a clash, as he vividly put it, between ‘the fundamental concept of the web and copyright as a series of little buckets’.
More connections emerged as Johannes Britz, echoing what Amanda Barrett had said, spoke of the importance of education as a human freedom, citing the unhappy statistics of education and research on the continent. He charted the difference between the old information world in which richness had to be sacrificed for the sake of wide reach and the new digital paradigms in which we can combine reach and richness. However, 80% of the world lives, he said, where infrastructure is lacking for unbundled,digital information and education is therefore dependent on physical objects such as books. He brought this down to a moral issue – the bread principle, as he called it. If we can make information and distribute it for a very marginal cost, then we have a new economic model that could serve those deprived of access to education. This is a moral imperative, but IP gets in the way. What also gets in the way is the excessively high cost of telecommunications in countries like South Africa and many other African countries. This means, he said, that the moral agenda becomes a money agenda. The bottom line, he argued, is that access to information is a basic human right and information infrastructure is fundamental to making access work.
It all came together just after Derek Keats, of the University of the Western Cape, had talked about the ways in which web 3.0 could break out of the narrower confines on university walls and the covers of books, offering abundance rather than the limitations of a physical environment. In addition, social networking environments allow students to become producers as well as consumers of knowledge. This, he said, is a ‘rip-mix-burn’ environment that allows for the creation of cross-institutional or even non-institutional learning environments. The Vice-Chancellor of the Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique responded to this with considerable excitement. ‘I was in a dark tunnel’, he said ‘and now I can see a light.’ He explained that his perception of the scarcity/abundance argument was that in Africa we have an abundance of students and an abundance of thinly populated land. However there is scarcity of lecturers and physical infrastructure. Having listened to the earlier speeches and then bringing to bear what Derek had said, he could now see the potential for ICTs and Open Access to help a country like his. ‘We should go where the students are living, take the money that we would have used for infrastructure and reach them where they are.’ He could see, he said, how Open Access and social networking tools can fundamentally change attitudes towards teaching and learning.
This linked back to some of the things that Christina Lloyd, of the Open University, had talked about. She described the steps that the OU had had to take over the years to accommodate students who came to university courses without formal entry requirements. This needs very careful curriculum design, introductory courses front-loaded in terms of support – and with continuing high levels of support to meet student needs. Provision needs to be modular and very high levels of assessment are built in. When it comes to technology gaps, she said that she thought that Africa did not have to be held back by infrastructure limitations as it had already leapfrogged in its use of mobile technologies as part of its blend. What she said about the curriculum also resonated for Africa – that we need to maximise the potential of learning online through the use of social networking as part of student support.
This all suggests that in the context of higher education in southern Africa, open access, combined with innovative use of mobile
technology and a recognition of the transfomative potential of social networking, offers considerable potential to move research and teaching away from anachronistic hierarchical and locked-in models inherited from the colonial era. Open access can therefore mean not only improved research communications and a greater global contribution by African research, but the use of open education and social networking might offer great potential in under-resourced countries to provide access for greater numbers of students to a well-supported, relevant and effective higher education system.