A recent opinion piece by Dr Sean Muller focuses on potential negative consequences of ‘incentivization’ that promote “rent seeking behaviour” in university academics.  Before I attempt to refute his thesis, it is necessary to ‘correct’ the author’s restricted definition of rent seeking: “the process by which private entities seek to use the state’s power to obtain or protect excessive economic surplus” and “compete for artificially contrived transfers”.

In fact, the idea of rent seeking:

“is simple but powerful. People are said to seek rents when they try to obtain benefits for themselves through the political arena. They typically do so by getting a subsidy for a good they produce or for being in a particular class of people, by getting a tariff on a good they produce, or by getting a special regulation that hampers their competitors”.

This idea, like that of “affirmative action”, is not inherently ‘wrong’.   Both forms of social engineering can help redress past injustice and promote adaptive change.  But, when perverted, both can have negative effects on university academics.  Muller emphasizes these for alleged “rent seeking” in universities, especially those in post-colonial developing nations.  Prof. David Benatar et al. do the same for affirmative action.

I also offer some constructive effects of academic incentivization in a post-liberation South African university environment.

The push to publish

In South Africa, since the 1970s, in order to encourage publication of research, universities receive cash for the publication of the results of its academic research in ‘approved’ journals/books.  In some cases, some or all of this “subsidy” finds its way to the pockets of academics and/or postgraduate student authors.  However, generally, it is used ‘wisely’ to subsidize university-wide processes at the discretion of senior management or allocated, in part, to the research accounts of academics and/or their departments.  In principle, I see nothing wrong with this form of incentivization, other than all of the subsidy going directly to the academic personally.  It encourages academics to conduct research that helps them to remain at the forefront of their disciplines and, especially, grad students to develop an ethos of “research is not done until it is reviewed by peers and published”.  Yes, some research may be of little or no value. But its impact is filtered out by peer-reviewers or is simply ignored.  What is important is that research is a sine qua non for reputable academics, even those who focus on teaching.

Other forms of incentivization

Two other performance-related metrics employed in some South African universities to hire, promote and otherwise reward academics that are the h-index (that aims to describe the productivity and impact of a researcher via citations) and her/his assessment through the rating system using international peers administered by South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF).  Both the merits and deficiencies of these metrics are reviewed thoroughly by Prof. C.L. ‘Kit” Vaughan in On the Shoulders of Oldenburg (2015 – NRF, Pretoria – ISBN: 978-1-86868-111-2).  I strongly support the use of NRF rating as a means of incentivization because it assesses research ‘quality’ by knowledgeable peers (and not ‘popularity’) every four years and has special awards for brilliant young researchers.  Periodic review by peers is an excellent means of exposing the fraud, plagiarism, rigging and unethical arrangements referred to by Muller.

‘World rankings’ and ‘social importance’

The ‘relational’ problem of university world rankings for academics is clearly addressed by the NRF system that delineates applicants from “A” (world leaders) to “C” (established researchers) in comparison with the best-of-the-best.  Young researchers are ranked “Y” (good but need development) and “P” (President’s Award = world class).   There is even a category “L” for late-developing academics (e.g. women who dedicated their early years to raising children).  Yes, many institutional ‘world’ rankings are “relative rather than [measuring] absolute quality” and focus on questionable metrics such as the number of Nobel laureates.   But, this neglects mentioning the Center for World University Rankings which ranks university research by discipline and gives absolute scores. [For example, for ornithology, my discipline, the University of Cape Town ranks – at 90.22 – third in the world, six points behind the USA’s Cornell University.]  So, “it’s [not] a zero-sum game”.

With regard to an academic’s or a university’s “social importance”, the “quality of teaching” and development of “high calibre academics for the future” can be assessed using course assessments by students, institutional recognition with Distinguish Teaching Awards and monitoring the success of postgraduates – what I call “academic fitness” (the number and percentage of supervised graduates who have successful careers).  [For example, all of my 55 postgrads found relevant employment and 15 as professors or institutional directors – 15 women and 10 ‘blacks’.] Locally relevant research is also easily determined from examination of publication abstracts/summaries.

Vulnerability of ‘weak’ or ‘decolonizing’ institutions

If anything, the use of potentially ‘rent seeking’ incentives based on the various metrics discussed above should help to improve the ‘status’ and ‘relevance’ of academics and institutions.  Kit Vaughan documents this well for formerly Afrikaans-medium universities which increased markedly in world rankings after the introduction of the NRF Rating System.  With regard to decolonization, rent-seeking structures could be introduced that favour academics and departments who improve in their “academic fitness” with special regard to socio-economically oppressed students.  They also could be used to identify weak and potentially racist academics who could be counselled or even retrenched.  In Muller’s terms, “Academics who are not equipped to produce and publish work that makes a substantive contribution – intellectual or other” should be encouraged to develop, not rewarded.

Of course, such assessments and comparisons should, at least initially, be restricted to within universities.  Initially, they could help to identify and promote strong individuals and departments. The ultimate goal is to have all universities competing at the same level.

But, you have got to start somewhere to identify strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.

Professor Tim Crowe is a descendant of oppressed Irish freedom-fighters from the United States working class. He is a first generation university graduate, non-settler immigrant alumnus, Elected Fellow and emeritus (40 years’ service) professor at the University of Cape Town. He is a Ph.D.-educated expert on evolutionary biology (covering everything from ‘race’ to deeply rooted evolutionary trees) and conservation biology (especially regarding sustainable and economically viable use of wildlife). He has published nearly 300 peer-reviewed scientific papers/books and is regarded as the world’s leading authority on game birds (chickens, turkeys, guinea fowls, etc.). About 70 of his graduated students have published their research and established themselves in their own right, including four professors.