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Will Braamfontein change IBM?

On Friday (the 26th September) I was excited to be invited to tour IBMs new research facilities in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, part of the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct. IBM has partnered with the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and has located its newest research centre here as part of that partnership. The facility had opened the day before.

It is incongruous to see IBM, with its quintessentially corporate ways, in the inner city. The tour provided some insights into how the negotiated settlement between the two cultures is progressing.

The research facility is a lovely, light space. It’s trendy, with a living wall of plants and furniture and fittings contributed by local designers. There are lampshades above the staircase made of corrugated cardboard and a roller door from the original building has been repurposed as art. Natural textures of wood and concrete prevail, with the artful use of steel partitions that look like giant punch cards. Just off the reception area is a space for relaxation with a table tennis table (that is used for lunch and meetings) and foosball, as well as a library designed to look like a “tree of knowledge”.

lights and plants

The living wall and cardboard lampshades. Photo: IBM Research

We were shown a “partner space”, for use by students and research collaborators. This open plan office included four smaller meeting alcoves with flexible partitions, each decorated to a different theme with interesting furniture. All cool enough for me to wonder how I could become a partner. We also got to see the “maker space” where wearable electronic components were being prototyped to support research into the transmission of disease. The space is well appointed, sporting a 3D printer with a unique articulated arm design.

cool alcoves

Stylish alcoves in the partner space. Photo: IBM Research

Upstairs were the researchers behind glass doors in a restricted area, in more traditional IBM fashion. Here the integrity of the architect’s vision had been brutally destroyed by a giant black three-panelled electronic screen which blocked all natural light from the office. In the gloom we got to hear the researchers talk about their research with flashy tech effects. Shapes twirled around on the monstrous screen. A discussion of how data analysis gives insight into cancer metastasis was illustrated with the outline of a body and when the screen was tapped, up popped a block of text and a different part of the body was highlighted. Wow.

Not a week before, I had visited the Joburg Smart City Day as part of the Fak’ugezi Africal Digital Innovation Festival, held at the Tshimologong Precinct and as I walked the two or three blocks to have lunch at Post my companion, a less frequent visitor to Braamfontein, commented that it was just like Maboneng, but more gritty. That is what Braamies is about. The phrase “keep it real” was invented here. No fancy décor can hide the fact that this is where real people live, on the street and in cheap flats, not in classy lofts.

IBM will have to learn to keep it real. That giant screen looks flash, but does not add to the understanding of the research and it really spoils the space. The research was interesting, but the bogus tech effects made one suspect that the results were not substantial enough to stand by themselves and needed to be made more impressive by the addition of smoke and mirrors. The heavy hand of a marketing magician detracted from what the researchers were doing. Keep it real.

In another area we were treated to a collection of displays showing a range of projects under development. There was an interactive table that simulated traffic and a drag and drop traffic controller that could be deployed to deal with problems. Cool tech, but here again, the neat rows of cars, one behind the other, had an air of unreality. When I left at 4:30pm, it was in crazy traffic with cars straddling lanes, trucks parked in the road, taxis overtaking in the face of oncoming traffic and randomly turning in front of me. Every intersection was gridlocked and every vehicle was nosing in regardless of the traffic lights and the yellow paint that plaintively suggested keeping the intersection free. If IBM is going to come up with solutions to Africa’s traffic congestion a good place to start would be with simulations that reflect the state of real traffic outside their windows. There is hope. We also saw models of traffic congestion in Johannesburg based on real-time data. That was more exciting.

There was a lot of justified pride in the openness of the new research facility and I can imagine that this is a departure from other IBM research facilities. But the openness is limited. We were told that the outdoor seating upstairs was designed so that employees could go out and connect with Braamfontein. Not much of a connection. Go out and look down, through a steel screen, but without actually mingling. When I asked whether I could make use of the maker space I was referred to public maker spaces and told that this space was reserved for partners with identified “synergy” with IBM’s research areas. Although, to be fair, I bagged a business card and was invited to talk further to establish whether there was any synergy between my research and theirs.

One IBM employee, asked how they felt about working in Braamfontein, said: “While I am in the office I am happy, but when I step outside, well, it’s Braamfontein, not Sandton.” To get to the cafes and restaurants requires a walk. There is a natural fear of change and I guess to those who don’t frequent Braamfontein, some trepidation is natural. On the tour we heard a lot about the security features of the new building including bullet proof glass on the downstairs windows and steel grids surrounding the outdoor seating upstairs.

I am genuinely excited about having IBM in a partnership with Wits. The research being done is interesting and does not need marketing hype to make it so. There is much still to learn about the potential for data and data analytics, particularly applied to addressing city problems, and I look forward to following up on that invitation to engage.

I think that IBM’s decision to locate their new research facility at Tshimologong should be applauded. I think that the moves, however tentative, towards openness are also a giant step forward for an organisation that has always struck me as unapproachable.

But I hope that the city dirt blows in and messes up the offices a little; that the IBM researchers are brave enough to get out and explore their new surroundings and find out how intriguing and complex a real city is.

Welcome to Braamfontein, IBM. I hope it changes you for the better.


Steel screens reminiscent of punch cards surround the building. Photo: IBM Research


Slow down, do more on public transport

I have long envied those that live in cities with good public transport. I always enjoy those trips where I can walk out in the morning, get to places, and get back without having to think about how. So I am watching with great interest the transport developments here in Johannesburg.

It’s not quite there yet. For me to get to my nearest Gautrain bus station is a twenty minute walk, which I am not opposed to, but which takes time. My 15 minute commute by car to work would take me about an hour and a half by public transport. I just can’t afford that kind of time, twice a day.

But I do take trips to Pretoria, to the Innovation Hub, about once a month. One of these meetings happened on Monday. I had it in my diary for 12:30 to 01:30, and my assistant had helpfully blocked out an hour before and after for the drive.

I woke up on Monday with a horrible migraine and although that passed in about two hours, I was left with the kind of hang-over that migraine sufferers will know makes it really hard to focus. Doing the death-run on the M1 with only half my brain functioning was not an attractive prospect.

So, figuring that I would not get a lot done on Monday anyway, I opted for public transport. This entailed a drive to the nearest station, train to Hatfield, and the H2 bus to the Innovation Hub. I set out at 10 am and got there at 12 noon. The trip back started at ten to two, and I got home at twenty to four. Lots of time goes into waiting for connections.

Yet, I had the most wonderfully productive day. While waiting at the station I cleared e-mails, including those that lurk in my “to read” box for months. On the train there I read though the documents for the meeting. On the way back I read and annotated a student’s work. My job entails a lot of reading and while that’s quite hard to do on the bus, it works well on the train.

Best of all, I felt calm and relaxed. I loved watching the traffic on the (not at all free) freeway as the train glides over towards the Centurion station. The sticker on the back of the seat in front of me told me that I had dramatically reduced my carbon footprint. I could let my mind wander to the lovely jacket that the woman on the next seat was wearing, and the way the light was catching on the grass outside – the kind of wandering that makes travel a pleasure, but which would be fatal on the M1.

It takes a certain acceptance that there will be delays, and that time will be spent waiting. For this a bit of planning is worthwhile: charge your phone, make sure you have data, print out the reports you want to annotate. Once you have done that, serenity is easy; certainly a lot easier than when driving, constantly alert and watching.

Monday turned out to be relaxing and productive, despite the migraine hang-over and the trip to Pretoria. So whenever I can, I will be slowing down, taking public transport, and getting more done.

Beauty and Joy

Last year, in summer, I visited the Augrabies Falls National Park for 10 days. One of the evenings was devoted to a night drive through the park.

We set off as the sun was setting, with the world going quiet as it does in the African evening, with the air becoming slightly chilly, the endless sky above and the wide open spaces all around us.

There were only four of us in the game vehicle, so we spread out, each taking a seat at the edge for a good view. The guide started his introductory patter.

I felt enormously privileged to be in a position to do this – to be driven through this totally wild space on such a beautiful evening, with not a care in the world other than keeping hold of the bottle of water in my hand.

Our guide picked out silent, somewhat spooky owls for us, and we saw hares bounding away in the spotlight. I was counting – one owl for each hare. The odds seemed to be against the hares, but we were assured that there were more hares about.

We saw an African wild cat, a hedgehog, and many other small creatures.

At one point he stopped the vehicle and turned off the engine. We all climbed out and stood looking at the stars, so brilliant in the unpolluted air. It’s rare to have a 180 degree view in every direction.

On the way back, near to the start of our trip, the guide turned his light on to the right, stopped the vehicle and casually announced: “and there is the leopard”. Sure enough, in a tree some 100 meters off the road, lay a magnificent leopard, watching our lights. Despite having lived more than fifty years in Africa, I had never seen a leopard in the wild. He was beautiful. We sat in silence, until he tired of the spotlight, jumped down from the tree, and walked off into the darkness.


Photograph by Wegmann (Wikimedia Commons)

There is such beauty in the world, and yet we don’t take the time to take it in. While that trip was exceptional, I see moments of beauty every day. Yesterday I watched two Egyptian geese proudly walk their brood between the groups of students scattered across the West Campus lawns. Today I watched two Green Hoopoes nodding up and down as they ate suet in my garden.


If all the people in the world could slow down long enough to notice the beauty, to take it in and to experience the joy that comes with it, the world would be a better place. So how can we set life up to give people time?

The sense of urgency that comes with having A Job and having Important Things To Do is what robs us of little moments of beauty. We have to find a way to organise the world so that what is really important becomes more obvious. Clearly it is more important to stop and watch the goslings waddling across the lawn than to get back to reading my student’s work. There is no joy in another student mastering academic writing, in marking another essay. The joy is in the fluffy little tail-feathers.


Picture by GalliasMJ (Wikimedia Commons)

I look forward to a future without jobs

What are jobs for? As far as I can tell, jobs serve three purposes:

  1. They provide a mechanism to distribute resources, through earnings
  2. They enable an individual to make an impact on the world through the work they do
  3. They occupy people and give lives structure

Distributing resources

Jobs have been a mechanism for distributing resources. These resources are usually in the form of money, but may also be accommodation, food or the right to access some priviledge. Resources are accumulated by companies and passed on to individuals.

Now as far as I can make out, jobs are a pretty poor mechanism for distributing resources. Most fundamentally, they are unfair, with the rewards bearing little relationship to the effort put in, or the needs of the individual. When I worked in the IT industry in the 1990’s I was continually bemused by how much I was paid for sitting in an office chair and fiddling with software, while people who worked longer hours in far less interesting jobs  earned a pittance.

The other strange thing about this distribution mechanism is that not everyone has a job, so a whole lot of people are left out of the resource distribution altogether. In South Africa around 25% of people are officially unemployed and about another 10% have given up looking for work. That means that more than a third of people who could work are simply ignored by this distribution mechanism. How can that be good?

As unemployment grows, people are realising that there has to be some mechanism for distributing resources to those who do not have jobs. As a result, basic income grants are being discussed in countries around the world. I am hopeful that there will be better resource distribution mechanisms in the future.

Having an impact on the world

A great benefit of a job is that it enables you to do work that has an impact on the world. As a programmer, I always got a thrill walking through an office where software I had written was being used. There were people, doing their work, and using the screen I had designed and coded. As a teacher, there is the thrill of seeing dawning understanding on someone’s face.

Having an impact on the world gives one a sense of purpose and makes life meaningful. But it is not the job that does that. The job is just one way through which people get the chance to make an impact.

In fact the experience of many jobs is that the impact one is making is not the impact one would like to make. I worked for years in corporate IT until I figured out that I was creating systems to enable rich people to get richer, at the expense of poor people. When a system I was responsible for commissioning put 300 people out of work, I decided that this was not the impact I wanted to make on the world and I left the IT industry.

There are ways to make an impact on the world without a job. We impact the lives of friends and family, and we impact the world when we are nice to random people we meet every day. We can start enterprises, work on a community project or start a social movement. So again, I am hopeful that in future there will be better ways for people to impact the world and find a sense of purpose and meaning.

Occupation and structure

Finally, jobs keep people busy and provide structure to their lives. There is a reason to get up in the morning, a routine that has to be followed. When you get to the workplace there is something to do, perhaps absorbing, or perhaps mindless, but it passes the time. There is also a group of familiar faces, people in the same boat as you, to share your frustrations, pleasures and daily activities. They provide companionship and a sense of belonging.

Well, that’s the ideal. But in fact the structure of work is usually onerous, involving complex and uncomfortable commutes, long hours and little time to do the things you need to do to run your life or just to enjoy it. A student freshly back from a month of work placement told me this week that getting up every morning to be at the office on time was the hardest thing she had ever done. It is hard. You might manage it while you are young and resilient, but it gets harder. There is the heartbreak of leaving your children in often less than satisfactory care, the mad rush to fit everything in before work, after work or over the weekend, and no time to simply relax. An eight hour work day is long and tiring. I don’t think a forty hour work week is good for humans.

Colleagues may be about the best reason to go to work, but even there things may not work to your advantage. You may well end up working large parts of your day with people whose values you do not share, or who actively make your life miserable. You don’t get to choose who to spend your time with.

Wouldn’t it be better if it were possible to set up your own occupation, doing things you want to do, for a reasonable number of hours, consistent with your own life goals? Shouldn’t you be able to surround yourself with the kinds of people you want to associate with? As things stand, it is possible, but difficult.

So, who wants jobs?

My sense is that jobs are not really doing a great job of meeting the needs of humans (they are, after all, designed to meet the needs of business). I think we can do better than jobs for all three of the purposes I have discussed. We can find better mechanisms for distributing resources. We can find better ways to have an impact on the world. And we can find ways to occupy ourselves and structure our lives that are more humane. I would like to see time and effort directed towards finding these alternatives, rather than towards creating more jobs.



Let’s separate research and teaching

Designing universities for 21st century Africa:  Can we improve on the 19th century European model?

Seminar presented at the DST-NRF
Centre of Excellence in Mathematical and Statistical Sciences (CoE-MaSS)
Friday, 08 July 2016


First, I want to tell you something about myself in order to give you some context about my thinking on higher education. I began life as a Mathematician, so it’s good to find myself back among mathematicians. But I strayed from the path, dropped out of my PhD in Mathematics and worked instead in the Information Technology sector for many years before returning to academia. I completed a PhD in a department here at Wits (the University of the Witwatersrand) that was called Higher Education Policy and Leadership. In a nice little self-referential twist, I studied PhD programs. It was during that time that I read a lot about the history of higher education and some of what I am going to present here is informed by work I did for my PhD. I later spent two years at the Council on Higher Education as the Director for Advice and Monitoring, where I gained a national perspective on the higher education system. Most recently I spent two years heading the School of Economic and Business Sciences, or SEBS, here at Wits.

Now one of the things that I really enjoyed about my work as a manager in the IT industry was organisational design. This is the process of taking a large task, such as implementing a large IT system, decomposing it into groups of related tasks, identifying what skills are needed, and constructing a set of job descriptions and an organisational structure that would make it all happen. No less interesting was the process of finding the right people, understanding individual’s skills and preferences, and matching people to jobs. Often, in the 90’s when IT skills were rare and costly, this entailed reconfiguring the job descriptions in order to match the particular individuals that you could find. Done well, organisational design gets jobs done, well, and I was skilled at this.

So imagine my surprise when I took over as Head of School at SEBS, thinking that the university was keen to benefit from my management experience, and discovered that I had no say in the job descriptions or the reporting structures, of my most valuable staff, the academics. I had been hired to do a job, but been told to leave my tools at the door.

Setting aside, for the moment, the matter of the “tutor track”, which affects only a small number of people, academics at Wits are employed against standard job descriptions which include the tasks of teaching and conducting research. The more I worked with staff, the more I realised the stupidity of this design. Some of the skills needed for teaching well, particularly when one is teaching large classes, include subject knowledge, knowledge of pedagogy, the ability to articulate and explain complex concepts, the ability to design and produce good course materials, the ability to use technological teaching aids, the presence to direct the energy of a class of boisterous young people, a strong understanding of the need for bureaucratic procedures and meticulous record keeping, and the emotional strength to cope with student’s constant demands and insecurities. This is a very tall order for any job description, without beginning to consider the skills needed to be a good researcher.

In general what I have seen at Wits is job descriptions that are extremely long and diverse and take no account of the reality of an eight-hour workday or the fact that individuals have different strengths and preferences about what they do. In particular, academics are expected to divide their time between many very different tasks and that is not a good way to do work that requires intense concentration. I think it is a credit to the calibre of academic employees that so many of them are able to do what is expected of them, but I don’t think it’s reasonable and I do think that it is keeping a lot of people out of academia who have something to contribute.

As Head of School I saw really good teachers leave because they could not meet the research requirements for confirmation and I saw really good researchers worn down by job demands that they were not equipped for. Work does not have to be pain. Good organisational design matches people to jobs that they are good at and enjoy. Good teachers and good researchers are in short supply, so why do we continue to insist that all academic staff be both teachers and researchers?

The unity of teaching and research

Well, it all goes back to the idea of the unity of teaching and research, introduced by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the early 19thCentury. Wilhelm von Humboldt was a philosopher, bureaucrat and diplomat responsible for reforming the German higher education system in the early nineteenth century. Humboldt carried out his reforms between 1808 and 1810 as the head of the section for ecclesiastic affairs and education in the ministry of the interior and his reforms extended across the entire education system, from elementary school to the university (Mueller-Vollmer et al. 2016). Reforms in the universities were prompted by concerns about “backward curriculum, lazy and corrupt professors, students only interested in quick degrees as passports to jobs, student dissoluteness, lack of money, [and] a multiplicity of self-duplicating institutions” (McClelland 1980:69).

The reforms, as might be expected, responded to particular social, political and economic circumstances at the time and it is difficult now to construct a nuanced understanding of these. I want to try and give you a sense of four different aspects of the reforms.

1. about knowledge…

The first aspect of the reforms that I want to deal with is that these reforms were intended to entrench an understanding of knowledge as something that changed over time as well as the value of what we would consider scientific knowledge and the methods of science.

Originally universities were structured into the higher faculties of Law, Medicine and Theology, and the lower faculties of Philosophy (Tanner et al. 1929) and Arts (Previté-Orton & Brooke 1936). The higher faculties enjoyed great prestige, with the Faculty of Arts often providing remedial studies for less able students (Previté-Orton & Brooke 1936). What Humboldt did was to elevate the status of the faculty of Philosophy, where what we now recognise as Science was housed, and establish the Doctor of Philosophy as a degree more valuable than the doctorates of the higher faculties.

But the far-reaching impact of the reforms was that they legitimised the idea that knowledge was not static, that accepted truths could and should be challenged, and that the student would grow over time to know more than the professor. It is difficult for us to appreciate that before these reforms, knowledge, particularly in the established professions represented by the higher faculties, was regarded as fixed. They taught a canon of well-established truths, condoned by respected masters, and any challenge to these truths was perilous. The idea that knowledge ought to be continuously challenged and the value of the scientific method in arriving at truth, were not universally accepted at the time, but Humboldt’s reforms sought to entrench these new attitudes to knowledge.

Along with the expectation that knowledge was something ever-changing and open to question, came the idea of academic freedom: that scholars were free to research and teach anything they wanted to. This was necessary to ensure that they were free to question long-held “truths”.

2. about professors…

The second important change that came with Humboldt’s reforms was that teaching had to be informed by current research and consequently, research became expected of all university professors (Krull 2005). It was no longer sufficient to be learned in a particular field, one had to be actively researching. This resulted in a flurry of hastily-written books, monographs and papers and the first hint of a future “publish or perish” culture.

The ideal professor envisaged by Humboldt was to both embody and inculcate “an almost infinite curiosity” as well as the skills for conducting research (McClelland 1980:122). The idea of active scholarship and teaching linked to research led to the seminar format of instruction. A professor selected a few of the best students for regular meetings to discuss texts and report on individual research. These seminars, often held in the professor’s home, led to the traditional master apprentice model of research education (McClelland 1980:181).

Humboldt did champion good working conditions for academics, recognising that solitude, tranquil surroundings, free time and security which ensured peace of mind were conducive to conducting research and necessary conditions for the university (Krull 2005).

3. neo-humanist education

Public debate at the time of the reforms presented three positions regarding university teaching. First, there was a utilitarian position that universities should train people for professions and jobs. Then there was the conservative view which held that “the object of education was to pass on a tradition of right belief through the use of traditional pedagogic techniques” and this reflected the view of many traditionalists in the higher faculties. Finally, there were the neo-humanists who believed that “the aim of education was to help unfold and realize the full potential of the personality” (McClelland 1980:106). Humboldt’s reforms were informed by this neo-humanist position.

For teaching, the reforms included freedom of study for students (Lernfreiheit, as opposed to the prescriptive curricula in France), as well as the educational ideal of Bildung, a word that is difficult to translate directly to English. Bildung is a process of self-cultivation towards personal and cultural maturity. It entails having one’s beliefs challenged, and resultant transformation, and requires the development of one’s humanity as well as intellectual abilities. Bildung was best accomplished in the intimate setting of the seminar. But nothing is said in the history books about what happened to the students who were not selected for seminar studies and what kind of teaching they experienced.

4. about money…

The reforms had lofty aims for learning and knowledge, but they also addressed some practical problems. In order to freely pursue research, and the Bildung of students, universities needed financial security. Students here will be pleased to know that Humboldt championed free and universal education, and as a result, university studies are still, to a large extent, free in Germany today.

But this led to some more dubious reforms. For example, at the University of Gottingen, a new curriculum in the “courtly arts” was introduced. The sons of wealthy aristocrats enjoyed lessons in dancing, drawing, fencing, riding, music and foreign languages. These courses proved popular and were successful in addressing the university’s funding problems (McClelland 1980). I imagine that the equivalent courses today are those directed at the business elite that include world tours, luxury hotel accommodation and hob-nobbing with global business leaders.

Money was Humboldt’s downfall. In his pursuit of financial independence for universities, one of the things he insisted on was property (that is land) for universities. Universities with land were able to support themselves through agriculture. Unfortunately this led to conflict with the aristocracy and he was asked to resign in 1810 (Mueller-Vollmer et al. 2016). He went on to a successful career as a diplomat.

Since Humboldt

So, yes, the idea that teaching and research should go hand in hand was core to the reforms made by Humboldt. This idea spread rapidly and is now embraced as a fundamental tenet of the Western style university. The Bologna declaration of 1988, which has been called the Magna Carta of European higher education, espoused four principles, the third of which is that teaching and research must be inseparable.

However, the Humboldtian ideals were wider than this one principle and specific to the context of early 19th century Europe. So not unexpectedly the spread of Humboldt’s ideas to other countries has been highly selective, with elements being assimilated according to different needs. Historians of higher education point out that there is a gap between the idealised image of German universities of the 19th century and their reality and that the popularity and ongoing recognition that Humboldt’s ideas enjoy lie more in a collective fantasy about academic life (McClelland 1980, Krull 2005).

So, I’d like to propose that, in the spirit of continuous questioning of received wisdom that Humboldt championed, it might not be heresy to question the unity of teaching and research. Indeed you might be interested to note that this principle does not appear in the South African National Plan for Higher Education (DoE 2001) which is the design blueprint for our system.

Some serious challenges in South African higher education

It’s worth reminding ourselves what the goals of the South African higher education system are:

  • To meet, through well-planned and co-ordinated teaching, learning and research programmes, national development needs, including the high-skilled employment needs presented by a growing economy operating in a global environment;
  • To contribute to the advancement of all forms of knowledge and scholarship, and in particular address the diverse problems and demands of the local, national, southern African and African contexts, and uphold rigorous standards of academic quality;
  • To support a democratic ethos and a culture of human rights through educational programmes and practices conducive to critical discourse and creative thinking, cultural tolerance, and a common commitment to a humane, non-racist and non-sexist social order; and
  • To promote equity of access and fair chances of success to all who are seeking to realise their potential through higher education, while eradicating all forms of unfair discrimination and advancing redress for past inequalities. (DoE 1997: 1.14)

In 2013, the public higher education sector enrolled close to one million students (983 698), a participation rate of 20% (CHE 2015). This compares with participation rates of 71% in Europe, 60% in North America, 12% for Africa and 34% globally (UNESCO 2014). Participation is limited by the poor achievements in our public school system, but also by the capacity of the higher education system. Universities admit to first time study about one third of the number that pass grade 12 each year.

South Africa has high unemployment and at the same time, a backlog of scarce skills and vacancies that cannot be filled. We need to teach more people and to teach them more effectively. Our current model of higher education is costly and is not delivering results. We need to investigate other models.

We are producing research in increasing volumes, and a fair amount of it is high-impact. The country has a small pool of really good researchers, who are able to produce quality research and do a good job of training research students. This small pool is too valuable to waste on doing anything other than research, so we need to investigate ways to use them most effectively. At the same time we produce an increasing stream of research of dubious quality that is not very useful, significant or impactful. I think this is equally wasteful.

Now, the thought experiment

So, I would like to conduct a thought experiment. What if we were to think about universities from the perspective of organisational design? The tasks that need to be accomplished are: research, research training, and teaching of undergraduate and professional programs, and the enculturation of students towards desirable national attitudes and values. How best to design the organisation to accomplish these tasks?

Research universities

The Humboldtian model of seminar-based learning and participation in research, as part of a professor’s research agenda, sounds very like an ideal form of graduate education for research students. These two tasks, conducting research and training researchers, require in common employees with research skills, so it makes sense that they should be done by the same people. So let’s imagine a research university as community of scholars, incorporating researchers from novices to professors.

Because this university would be entirely focused on the production of knowledge, we could take advantage of all the research that exists into creativity to design optimal conditions. Early research into creativity viewed it as an aspect of personality (Kirton 1987), however later research views creativity as a social phenomenon (Cropley 2006) and a function of inherent abilities, learned skills and environmental factors (Sternberg 2006). A review I carried out of this research shows that the best researchers have an intrinsic interest in research; have acquired cognitive abilities and a deep conceptual map of their field, while also having a broad understanding of other fields; are willing to take risks and are able to identify interesting problems to solve (Backhouse 2009). Creativity requires an environment where “survival needs are catered for; where opportunities are provided for interactions [among] experts in [each] field and with people in other fields that stimulate different conversations; where risk-taking is encouraged and in which the need for open-endedness, the space for problems to develop alongside their solutions is acknowledged and supported” (Backhouse 2009). Humboldt was right; conducting research requires solitude, tranquil surroundings, free time and security.

So I could imagine a number of research institutions, responsible for producing research and for the training of future researchers, at the masters’ and doctoral levels. I imagine such a university being fairly small, structured into a number of research groups, which may be discipline-based or interdisciplinary and run collegially. Each research group would be free to pursue whatever research they are interested in, constrained by their ability to attract research funds.

I envisage that such organisations will have quiet leafy campuses, well equipped laboratories and libraries. Each group would need office space and whatever facilities are needed to conduct their research configured in such a way that the members of the research group see each other daily, and also have opportunities to interact with other research groups. There would be a Principle Investigator for each research group, who would effectively manage it. I would expect research students to be employed as research assistants.

Learning that deep conceptual map of the field, to ask good questions, and pursue their answers with rigour, can be done effectively by working closely with a professor, who is an active researcher. However research into doctoral education shows that the quality of such learning depends on the individual professor, and that doctoral students are most successful when they have a network of people to turn to and are not dependent on a single individual. So I would expect that a research team would provide the optimal learning space. A research team can also draw on different skills from different people – one may be better at administrative tasks, another a more eloquent writer, while a third may be skilled in analysis – thus reducing the need for each member of staff to combine all these skills in some super-human ideal. Because of my experience in the Information Technology sector, I would suggest that research teams should change over time, being put together for specific projects and reconfigured at the end of each project.

In the South African context, research universities would probably report into, and to some level be funded by, the Department of Science and Technology. Ideally they would be able to use their knowledge assets to produce further income, as well as attracting research funding from those that value the research being produced.

The benefits of this model are that the small number of active researchers in the country would be focussed on the tasks of doing research and instructing novice researchers in the process. This small and valued pool of individuals would be fully occupied in what they are best suited to. Having a reasonable job description, each person would be able to concentrate, develop deep knowledge and skills, and ultimately they will produce better research for not having their attention scattered.

The institutions, not being concerned with undergraduate or professional teaching, would be smaller and easier to run. They could be less bureaucratic, more responsive to the changing needs of researchers and develop internal procedures more appropriate to a highly creative environment.

Teaching universities

When it comes to undergraduate teaching and training of professionals, I find it difficult to see much in the Humboldtian reforms that can be applied in the 21st century. In 1810 the University of Berlin opened with 256 students. In 2016, Wits University has more than 30 000 students and we need to teach far more. Teaching thousands of students could be done using a seminar model, but it would be very costly. In any case, even back in the 1800s it appears that this model was reserved for a small elite. In addition, Humboldt did not have the advantages we have of electronically stored knowledge that is location-independent and the communication technologies we are familiar with.

So I can imagine a number of large teaching universities, that occupy less physical space, but whose students are dispersed over wide areas. I imagine that such institutions would offer a range of blended learning courses. I imagine many small learning centres to support students, teaching them how to use technologies and how to study. Such learning centres would be located near to where students live and work and would provide places for studying together, both formally and informally. University infrastructure would include accommodation and teaching spaces where students could come for intensive face-to-face learning in what we currently call “block release” format. Perhaps first year students will begin their studies with two or three months of intensive block release to orient them towards university learning.

Now I know very well that UNISA, our local distance university, fails dismally to graduate students and that this has led to criticism of distance learning. But, I think that we inevitably have to rely more and more on learning through technologies and less on the current model of face-to-face learning because the latter model is too costly to expand to the extent that it needs to. When I talk of cost here I refer to the cost of campuses, facilities and staff, and also to the cost to students of accommodations, transport and lost earnings.

I also believe that a blended learning approach, with face-to-face study groups for students and intensive week-long block release study over the year can achieve far better results if the proper effort goes into designing the curricula and engaging with students. Learning to learn online sets students up for a future of lifelong learning because it opens up to them the wide world of online resources where it is possible to find just about any information that the average citizen of the 21st century will need to thrive. I am also aware that blended learning is costly, but my idea is that money should be going into designing teaching programs rather than into buildings.

Good teaching that is going to reach a wider range of students than just an exceptional elite, requires people who take teaching seriously and who are not distracted by the need to build research careers. Academic staff would be employed and follow a career path that went from assistant lecturer, lecturer, senior lecturer, associate professor to professor. Academic lecturers would not be expected to produce new knowledge through research, but they would be expected to read research outputs and thus keep up with the current state of knowledge. A good teacher will take pains to learn about and communicate the frontiers of research, where they are accessible to undergraduates, but that teacher need not be doing the research herself. In terms of qualifications, I would like to see lecturers complete masters’ and doctoral degrees that resemble more the old doctorates of the higher faculties, which were awarded for being familiar with the body of knowledge, or complete professional teaching qualifications.

I think it is important for all students to learn to critique knowledge and to understanding the methods of science and scholarship so I would expect them to be exposed to these in their undergraduate programs. Student should be reading research papers as part of their learning. A great teaching university could partner with a research university to expose senior students to research. Researchers would be invited to give guest lectures and to meet top students who are likely to go on to research studies. Such an institution would prepare students for further study at research universities.

Teaching universities would report into the Department of Higher Education and Training, and would be funded through that department. I am with the students who call for free education, because I think the national benefits are great, but there does need to be some balancing of the books. So I would suggest that teaching universities are funded from the public purse, and also from some fees, particularly for the professional master’s courses that are undertaken by people well established and earning. I also think that employers should be charged a fee for graduates, as they are the ultimate consumers of what a teaching university produces. How much they would be willing to pay will reflect on the value of the graduate, so it will be an incentive for universities to up their game in terms of the quality of graduates. I think that first degrees should be free, but that professional master’s degrees should be paid for.

Strong teaching universities would be able to focus on teaching and the student experience without having to provide the infrastructure and support for research. They would be able to attract qualified staff who are dedicated teachers and who prefer not to be doing research. They would be able to experiment with teaching methods and technologies because staff would have time to devote to innovations in teaching and will get recognition and rewards for doing so.

Cultural conduits

I want to come back, briefly, to the matter of the universities task to: “support a democratic ethos, a culture of human rights, … critical discourse and creative thinking, cultural tolerance, and a common commitment to a humane, non-racist and non-sexist social order”. I think this is an important and neglected task. It may even turn out to be the most important task of universities in South Africa at this point in history.

I know that there have been efforts, notably by Prof Jansen at the University of the Free State to explicitly develop interventions along these lines. He introduced a first year program that saw students exposed to a range of senior academics, and debates about culture, knowledge and of course race. However I think very little attention has been paid to this task outside of that program. I would envisage such a program for all university students with components at each year of university study.

Those who study curricula recognise that students learn knowledge, skills and attitudes in the process of their studies. I think that all our teaching needs to be examined to understand the attitudes, and the values that are being communicated, often unintentionally. The task of re-thinking curricula is huge and it will only be undertaken if there are dedicated teachers to do this work. For me this is the equivalent of Humboldt’s humanist agenda. We have to teach the whole human being and not just transfer knowledge and develop skills.

From here to there

What I have imagined here is simply a thought experiment. It needs to be more fully fleshed out than is possible in an hour. I am seeking your input on the feasibility, the obstacles you see, and what you would like to see in such institutions.

What I am not proposing is a radical restructuring of the South African higher education system. I think that we are too fast to embrace educational reforms. What I want is for us to think long and hard about these ideas, and to act only when we are convinced that they represent an improvement. Furthermore, any action, when it comes, needs to be incremental.

Thus far, none of our universities has chosen as their mission: “to be the institution of choice for undergraduate students seeking a well-rounded education with exceptional levels of support for their learning”, but I think it would be a great mission. The reason of course is that there are painful concerns about the status of institutions in the South African system. What I am proposing is not that research institutions be considered high status and teaching institutions low status. I think that, at the present point in our history, teaching is more important than research and that both institutions ought to enjoy high status for doing complex and important work. But the old hierarchies die hard and it will be a challenge to establish the status of teaching universities.

I suggest that it is important that both institutions continue to use the name university and to appoint professors, although the promotion criteria for a research professor and a teaching professor ought to be different.

Another idea to deal with the matter of status is for the country to have fewer, larger, teaching universities. This would concentrate the expert teachers who could develop programs and good learning materials and improve the quality of education. Effectively the examination and award of degrees could be done by a handful of teaching universities, while the teaching could be distributed to more institutions to prepare students for examinations.  I envisage a system that has, say, five small research universities and five large teaching universities. The teaching universities would each have multiple campuses used for some level of face-to-face teaching and extensive learning conducted using technology.

Some have pointed out to me that there are already moves in this direction with the formation of research institutes where researchers are concentrated. I think this is a step in the right direction, but I think this approach does create two classes of academics and that is not going to work in the long term.

One hour is not really enough to do justice to this topic. There are many aspects to this proposal that need to be fleshed out. I invite your thoughts on how to do this and, indeed, whether it is worth thinking about at all.


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Mueller-Vollmer, Kurt and Messling, Markus, (2016). Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), Retrieved from on 4th July 2016.

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Designing universities for the 21st century


Prof Judy Backhouse
(School of Economics and Business Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg)

“Designing universities for the 21st century. Can we improve on the 19th century model?”

Friday, 08 July 2016

Broadcast live from:
Videoconferencing Facility, 1st Floor
Mathematical Sciences Building, Wits West Campus

How to connect to this seminar remotely:
You can connect remotely via Vidyo to this research seminar by clicking on this link:
and downloading the Vidyo software before the seminar.

You must please join in the virtual venue (called “CoE Seminar Room (Wits)” on Vidyo) strictly between 10h00-10h15. No latecomers will be added.

Important videoconferencing netiquette: Once the seminar commences, please mute your own microphone so that there is no feedback from your side into the virtual room. During the Q&A slot you can then unmute your microphone if you have a question to ask the speaker.

The idea that a university necessarily combines both research and teaching originates in the 19th century reforms of the German university system, and is widely and strongly believed today. But is it appropriate for a 21st century South African university system? Perhaps it is time to question even this fundamental assumption about universities. This presentation unpacks the origins of the idea, compares conditions in 19th century Germany and 21st century South Africa, examines the purposes of universities and argues that the higher education sector would be better off with distinct institutions for teaching and research. I outline what such a system would look like and present steps that can be taken towards this scenario within the existing institutional structures, as well as changes that would be needed nationally to make it work.

Words for what the literature says

I spend a lot of time reading student proposals, all of which include some kind of engagement with the existing academic literature. When describing what has been said, students frequently fall back on “the author stated” or “authors opined“. Stated and opined are about the least helpful words in a literature review because they say nothing about the extent to which the author’s claims have been established to be “true” or even reasonable.

Using the word proved is a much stronger statement, although there are few fields in which one really can prove anything, so instead authors often argue or demonstrate or illustrate their claims.

So I have started my own collection of words to use when reviewing literature. I have arranged these below in the descending order of “strength”; that is the ones at the top of the list can be used when the author has a strong claim and the ones at the bottom of the list are appropriate for weaker claims. In arguing a point in the literature review you want to use stronger claims, to strengthen your own arguement, and avoid the weaker claims.

proved, established

demonstrated, illustrated, showed

argued, explained, discussed, researched

claimed, declared, stated, said

noted, highlighted, mentioned, alluded to (used for peripheral points)

opined (it’s just an opinion!)

Which word you use has to depend on the strength of the claim in the paper you are reading. If the author makes a claim and does not support it with appropriate evidence (which may be a citation or empirical data), then you can’t say in your review that this claim has been established. If you tell me that an author stated something you are not informing me whether the author did any research to support that statement or not.

The wonderful range of words in the English language allows for subtlety. You can use them in your literature review to show which claims are stronger and which are weaker and so which parts of the literature are worth responding to and which are not.You can critique a paper by saying that the authors claim that … but fail to provide a sound arguement for their claim.

And don’t be shy of plain words, like said. Language doesn’t have to sound pompous to get your point across. Simplicity aids clarity.

What words do you use? Which words have I left out? I’d love to hear.