Tackling inequality in higher education: the role an NREN can play

South Africa is the world’s most unequal society and this is reflected in its higher education. TENET, as partner to all universities in South Africa, is doing what it can to ensure equality of access.

Almost thirty years into democracy South Africa remains beset by inequalities of income, wealth distribution, opportunity, and region. Most of these are rooted in the legacy of the apartheid system, which, in seeking to impose a racial logic on every aspect of South African society, left no sector unsparred, including the higher education system. So-called “white” universities, well-funded and supported, were able to compete globally in education and research; the majority of the population, denied access to these universities, were restricted to under-funded institutions, unequal by design and often created by the apartheid government in the so-called “homelands.” Following 1994, extensive reconfiguration of the higher education sector has overcome much of this legacy. Still, tremendous challenges of inequality remain, not least of which is their spatial disadvantage, in that they are located in rural or peri-urban areas with comparatively fewer resources and student populations that cannot always afford to pay fees.

Today the differences in access to resources of universities remains stark. As represented in this graph below based on data from the publicly accessible 2019 audited financial statements.

“All South Africa’s universities as well as many statutory research institutes are TENET’s partner institutions and we are committed to ensuring that none of our partners are prejudiced because of their geography or history,” says Guy Halse, head of Trust and Identity at TENET.

In order to ensure this, TENET has leveraged its unique position as a partner to all the universities to help level the playing field. While commercial providers tend to price according to distance from key infrastructure or location, TENET, at its outset, made the conscious decision not to do this. They have also done all within their power to make sure the type of access available to rural and peri-urban campuses was not negatively affected by their geography. In this it was greatly assisted by the Department of Higher Education and Training, which provided grant funding to connect rural campuses that would not otherwise have been connected.

Many of TENET’s other services are subsidised from a general network access fee, so services like SAFIRE, eduroam and security services also see this cross-subsidisation in which even the lesser-resourced universities get equal access.

“Affording all universities equal access to the Internet is a key part of democratising higher education,” says Halse. “The Internet grew out of academia and has underpinned communication, research and access to information at our universities for decades. However, COVID-19 revealed both the power of the Internet to connect people and the stark discrepancies that still exist in many parts of the world.”

Access to the ORCID consortium

ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor ID) is an important part of the global digital research infrastructure. ORCID maintains a registry of unique researcher identifiers and offers a transparent method of linking research activities and outputs to these identifiers. Its use by researchers is recognised and often mandated by funders. ORCID for Research Organisations provides tools to help build trusted relationships between the researcher, their outputs and the institution they are affiliated to.

To support the use of ORCID in South Africa TENET operates the ORCID Consortium to allow for cost savings for ORCID membership for institutions and give members access to local support.

“TENET currently has 18 member institutions to our ORCID consortium,” says Halse. “The reality is that cost is a barrier to entry for the ORCID consortium. But fortunately, TENET and its community are already familiar with the culture of cross-subsidisation to bring about greater equality of opportunity and access.

“In our last ORCID workshop in late 2022 we broached the topic of this kind of cross-subsidisation for the ORCID consortium and I was heartened at the overwhelmingly positive response of those attendees,” says Halse. “The next steps are to get the buy-in from university management structures for final approval on this cross-subsidisation strategy.”

“TENET is uniquely positioned to find solutions which benefit all our university partners,” says TENET CEO, Duncan Greaves. “The challenges of inequality deeply affect higher education, while solving our country’s challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment depends to a great extent on the higher education sector’s effectiveness.”

“It remains inspiring though how willing and enthusiastic our university partners are to contribute in whatever ways they can to help us level the playing field and ensure we bring all our university partners along as we work to progress research and education in South Africa.”

This story was originally posted by TENET on https://www.tenet.ac.za/news/tackling-inequality-in-higher-education-the-role-an-nren-can-play.

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