Aarti Panday
Aarti Panday

#FeesMustFall – Technology innovation income can fund university students

The National Development Plan (NDP) identifies education and innovation as fundamental contributors to South Africa’s development by way of addressing poverty and inequality challenges in society. The NDP goes a step further, in recognising that universities produce new knowledge and find new ways in which to apply existing knowledge. There are very bold (but achievable) targets set for 2030 – universities should produce approximately 5 000 PhDs a year – this target is one that is significant to current events.

However, as highlighted in the current wave of student protests, government’s contribution to the funding of public higher education has declined from 50% to 39% over the past decade and half, from 2000 to present day. The resulting deficit, not borne by other university income, has fallen squarely on the shoulders of students.

The Wits SRC has put forward a proposal, where, for every R100-million spent at a university, the contributing elements would be government providing 50%, corporate/private at 29%, the proposed infrastructure fund at 10%, leaving the student component at 11%.

A less obvious solution to the fees crisis, and a possible contributor to the above model, lies in supporting South Africa’s aim to move to a knowledge economy. Science, technology and innovation in South Africa is coordinated through a concept known as the National System of Innovation (NSI). This refers to the interaction and collaboration amongst various higher education institutes, science councils private sector firms, government departments and funding agencies with an aim to enhance quality of life and bring about social change through scientific and technological innovations. In order to support increased employment and economic growth, an effective NSI must be in place.

The 2015 South African Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators published by the National Advisory Council on Innovation is very candid in its analysis of the South African NSI. The report also included, for the first time, the performance of South African universities in generating knowledge, research collaboration and research prioritisation.

In 2014, South African intellectual property (IP) emanating from the NSI brought in R1,26-billion as technology receipts to the country, which was the equivalent of 0.033% GDP. The benchmark analysis showed that South Africa had lower technology receipts as percentage of GDP compared to Japan (0.8%), the UK (0.669%), South Korea (0.365%) and the USA (0.748%). Compared to our Brics counterparts, South Africa fared more than double the average (0.016%). However, this is not enough to reduce the current account deficit. South African universities have a lot to achieve before significant change in economic indicators is to be realised through technology receipts. Over the past five years, IP activity and outputs generated through the use of public funds have increased. Since the Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Financed Research and Development Act was effected, approximately 800 IP outputs have been recorded. It is this IP portfolio that is able to generate the technology receipts needed to improve economic indicators.

One may ask whether it is viable to reinvest revenue generated from technological innovations back into universities for student funding. I cannot see any reason this would not be feasible. All indications point to a conducive environment. Being a student at Wits, it is easier for me to use Wits as an example:

In its 2015 Annual Report, Wits, with great pride, boasts that amongst its academics are 138 internationally renowned A- and B-rated scholars, and another 243 rated scholars. It also reported that in 2014, 85% of its publications appeared in international journals and in 2015, 1 900 publications appeared in ISI indexed journals. Wits also lays claim to hosting 14 research institutes, 19 research units, 10 Centres of Excellence and four specialised research groups.

With this amazing research foundation, a university such as Wits should have no problem in establishing itself as a leading innovative university. Should Wits up its game and focus more efforts towards advancing scientific research and inventing new technologies, there would be no reason that these outputs could help drive our economy and even subsidise university fees across the board at Wits. A single IP transaction in an ICT or pharmaceutical technology could be worth billions of rands by itself, what then of an entire portfolio of IP!

Recently, a Wits University patented technology was commercialised through a spin out company, SmartSpot Quality (Pty) Ltd. The technology enables verification and quality assurance of new generation tuberculosis diagnostic devices. I imagine this to be just the tip of the iceberg if Wits Enterprise were to gear up to accommodate start-up companies from any one of the Centres of Excellence or research units hosted at Wits. In addition, Wits Enterprise already oversees an private industry-funded research portfolio worth R16.8-million, comprising 43 research and development consulting projects.

Another good indication that returns on technology investments is a viable contributor to the proposed funding model is the building of the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Hub. Wits, through a partnership between government, industry and academia will incubate high-tech start-ups, providing research, commercialisation and high-level skills development for students, working professionals and unemployed youth. Finally, the 2015 Wits Annual Report also acknowledged that a R1-billion turnover was generated by the Wits Health Consortium and that all surpluses are reinvested into the University.

The foundations to exploit scientific knowledge generation and technological innovation is already in place. However, the next phase must be robustly defined. It must be decided how South Africa as a country, and universities in particular will reinvest proceeds from technology investments. At this point in time, it is safe to say that we are uncertain what percentage of royalties received by universities can be set aside for student fees. Now is a good a time as any to be starting these discussions. The NDP identifies PhDs as systemic drivers towards a knowledge economy. As a university community we need to ask ourselves how we are translating this into a reality that benefits our country.

We claim bragging rights to having a significant amount of NRF rated researchers at Wits. No doubt these excellent academics are assets to the university and to the South African community at large. The ability to generate an income from our best ideas, conceived, pioneered and developed on our campuses, with our students and with our academics is an exciting prospect and one that I hope can be championed by the #FeesMustFall movement.

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