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Rhodes research punching above its weight

Date Released: Mon, 21 January 2013 09:29 +0200

Grahamstown is not on the way to anywhere else. If you go to the small Eastern Cape city — it has a cathedral, so it is technically a city — it is likely that you are visiting Rhodes University.

It is the smallest traditional university in the country, with just more than 7,000 students in total, and punches above its weight in terms of quality and quantity of research. But there is no doubt that its remoteness and size often hinder its ability to compete on an equal footing with other South African institutions.

The university is unique — both in terms of legacy, size and location — which makes it difficult to compare with other institutions. The Eastern Cape is one of the poorest provinces in the country, and Rhodes sits in the invidious position of being a traditionally white university and a seat of privilege in an area that is stricken by poverty.

One academic said although times were "tight" at the university, they could not lay off staff.

"We are the major employer in this town. We have to find other ways to cut corners," he said.

"We value and promote the researcher-teacher model at Rhodes," said Peter Clayton, deputy vice-chancellor for research. "It’s a necessity because we are small — we do not have the luxury of full-time researchers."

However, there is pressure on academics to produce, but the incentives the university receives from the government are spread across researchers.

Research output is heavily weighted in favour of the sciences — notably radio astronomy, marine biology, biosciences, chemistry and nanotechnology — but these subsidise research in other areas and faculties.

Neither Rhodes nor Cape Town University offer their academics financial incentives for research output — which could draw many academics from the sleepy Eastern Cape city to universities that do channel the financial incentives into researchers’ own projects.

"We have to put up with the fact that the top people are getting offers all the time," said Dr Clayton. "We have to ensure they have good labs, admin is taken out of the way. If we get that right, they are more likely to stay. If you create an intellectual environment, you attract people," he said.

And Rhodes has managed that in a number of fields. In fact, about 85% of its academic staff have doctoral degrees, compared with the national average of about 30%.

This means that these academics can supervise doctoral students. Dr Clayton describes it as the "magic bullet" because it "correlates with quality output".

However, in the science faculty most academics whom Business Day spoke to said there was pressure to take more students.

"I’m pushed to take on masters and doctoral students who just don’t have the ability," said one academic, who asked not to be named. "I’m not forced to pass them, but I’m encouraged to take them on … especially black students."

This comment was echoed by at least four other senior academics. But Dr Clayton said while there was a lower entrance level for postgraduate study, "we do not have a low quality going out. We cannot drop our standards, because it will destroy our heritage."

However, there is one area in which Rhodes is lagging significantly behind its peers: technology transfer. It reports to the Eastern Cape regional office at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Dr Clayton said: "Rhodes University is mainly scholarly output, the number of patents is very small."

But, at the same time, the university is strong in high-patent fields such as biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and nanotechnology, and it is not pushing patenting like other universities, where academics are given the opportunity to monetise their research.

As award-winning research chair Tebello Nyokong says: "This is where South African universities have to go. We cannot rely on government funding forever; we cannot rely on donor funding."

Written by: Sarah Wild

Picture credit: Business Day Live

  • This article was published on Business Day Live.