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Unasked Questions

June 17, 2011

TORONTO -- Representatives of a leading American university recently paid a visit to Adam Habib, deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. The university wanted to set up a partnership, and proposed two scholarly areas: African dance and culture, and quantitative methodologies in the social sciences.

Habib said that Johannesburg was interested, but also wanted to add a third area: renewable energy. Johannesburg received "a very polite rebuff," Habib said, to the idea of collaborating in energy research.

What "institutional arrogance," Habib said, for the American university to be willing to see an African university as a suitable partner in the social sciences or on African dance, but not in a hard science.

Habib used this recent experience to challenge Western universities and also higher education-focused publications (he cited Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Times Higher Education) to think more critically about globalization and higher education. He spoke Thursday here at the First International Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education, which brought together journalists, faculty members and administrators from many countries. (Inside Higher Ed was among the organizers of the conference.)

Publications that focus on higher education, he said, by virtue of the subjects they address, by their very existence make a case that governments should care about and support colleges and universities.

But he said that the higher education news media need to be much more critical about international partnerships and the "unequal relationships" between the parties. Habib stressed that he favors collaboration between South African and American universities, but he said that while his university is secure enough to push back at unreasonable terms, others may not be.

"Have you all been asking who is determining the research questions, and how differential access to resources" determines who makes decisions? he asked the journalists in attendance.

He cited other questions as deserving of exploration:

  • Research priorities. He noted that American and European universities are focused on climate change, and on such possible responses as solar panels and biofuels. Why, he asked, are reporters not noting that in much of Africa, people have no access to energy at all, and how that fact influences whether something like a solar panel will make a difference? Journalists should question research agendas that are "unmindful of the developing world," he said.
  • Peer review. He noted that many in higher education view blind peer review as the ultimate measure of the validity of work, and belittle work reviewed in other ways. How can such a system work, he asked, in a country where there are very small pools? In South African political science, he said, there is a potential pool of 250 people, and he knows most of them and their work, meaning that blind peer review is blind in name only.
  • Rankings. While some publications produce rankings, and others cover rankings, Habib said, there is little coverage of the extent to which international rankings "can subvert national goals" as universities seek to rise by embracing the values of those doing rankings (usually an emphasis on research).
  • Efforts to help. Habib said that he is tired of "capacity building" grants for African nations that involve giving scholarships to the best would-be potential graduate students to enroll in Europe or North America. Habib noted that South Africa's government spends more on graduate students than on undergraduates, so the universities lose both talent and money (both of which would actually build their capacity) whenever these grants take their best students away. "People just don't understand the context," he said.

On these and other issues, Habib said, the higher education publications (and higher education leaders) need to ask more questions. "They need to challenge the hidden assumptions," he said, "and highlight the consequences of an unequal world."

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