Developing a Differentiated System in South African Higher Education

Ninth Annual Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Conference

Title: Developing a Differentiated System in South African Higher Education

Professor Adam Habib

21 September 2015

Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, Dr Albert Van Jaarsveld; Co-director of the Pullias Centre for Higher Education at the University of Southern California, Professor William Tierney; CEO of the Council on Higher Education, Professor Narend Baijnath; Chairperson of the Language and Communication Studies Centre at the Chinoyi University of Technology, Professor Herbert Chimuhundu;  Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Teaching and Learning at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, Professor Renuka Vithal; colleagues and friends.

A differentiated higher education system is a prerequisite for both economic competitiveness and inclusive development. The best exemplar of this is Finland. The country does not have a single university in the top 50 of any of the global ranking systems – yet it consistently tops the competiveness ranking and the human development indicator charts. This is because its educational institutions are differentiated, each with different mandates and responsibilities, independent and yet connected to one another, thereby creating a seamless system that is both nationally responsive and globally competitive.

A differentiated higher education system enables responsiveness to the diverse and multiple needs of an economy and a society. This model is particularly relevant to the developing world where demands of the knowledge economy and social needs remain underdeveloped and therefore require dedicated focus and attention. In South Africa, it would allow some universities to play a bigger role in the teaching of undergraduate students and the production of professionals to meet market skills demands, which is necessary to improve economic growth and competitiveness. It would also allow other universities to focus on postgraduate students and undertake high-level research, which are equally essential if we are to develop a knowledge-based economy of the 21st century. And then yet again, this higher education system should have FET sector comprising colleges focussed on producing graduates with vocational and applied skills. These different responsibilities require very different skills sets, institutional environments and investment patterns. This is why they cannot simply be done by a single type of institution or university.

If this is the case, and it is understood by all of the stakeholders in the university system, why is it that South Africa has not been able to explicitly progress towards a differentiated higher education system? The answer of course lies in our history which has saddled the evolution of our system and our current choices with the burden of a racialised legacy. Too many higher education leaders in the post-apartheid era have wanted to transform their institutions into what their institutions were prevented from becoming in the apartheid era. But not only has this proved to be impossible given the scarcity of resources available and the long time frame required to mould universities and higher education institutions, but it has also paralysed the system from evolving into one that is capable of addressing the diverse and multiple needs of contemporary South Africa.

To get ourselves out of this impasse, we need to rethink the debate and fashion the establishment of a differentiated system on four distinct principles. First, it needs to be underscored that the research enterprise must be common to all of the universities. Even the universities primarily focused on the teaching of undergraduate students must be engaged in research. Otherwise how else can they guarantee that their academics are at the forefront of – and teaching the latest developments in their disciplinary fields? The only difference between these institutions and the more research intensive ones should be on the quantity and extent of the research obligations, and maybe even the type of research activities.

Second, South African university executives and policy makers need to rid themselves of a status conception of the university system where research intensive universities are seen as more illustrious than their undergraduate teaching counterparts. The global ranking systems have also fostered this illusion further burdening the imagination and ambition of university executives, with the result that too many have chased the elusive goal of evolving into a research intensive university.

Third, and related to the above, our financing of universities must not implicitly assume this status hierarchy. Too often in the public discourse on universities, executives at the research intensive universities have simply assumed that they should be the recipients of a larger largesse of funds. In fact executives at research intensive universities are often heard to make the argument that one cannot turn the clock back on the history of privilege which enabled only some of our institutions to evolve into research universities, and that as a result South Africa should position these universities through the generous provision of resources to compete with their counterparts elsewhere in the world. The net assumption is that larger resources would be directed to these institutions.

This argument was of course contested by historically black universities who use their history of disadvantage as a leverage to also make a claim for a bigger share of resources. The net effect was an implicit and explicit fight for who is entitled to a bigger share of what was effectively a dwindling real higher education pie.

Finally, our higher education system must be flexible enough to allow institutions to progress from one institutional variety to another should they so decide. Societies and their needs change over periods of time, and institutions must be given right to evolve in order to become responsive to these needs. Moreover, allowing for institutional evolution enables university executives to be more pragmatic in their current decision-making since their institutions are not forever closed off from being one or other institutional type.

But however well we implement these principles, we are unlikely to make progress in this regard so long as our universities and high education institutions do not learn to partner and work with each other. These partnerships must be explicitly directed to breaching and overcoming the racial and linguistic boundaries that defined the evolution of the higher education system. But they also must go further than simply the formal interactions at the level of HESA. The partnership must involve the very core activities of the universities and be directed towards joint degrees, combined teaching programs, joint research initiatives, support for the building of institutional capacity, and enabling the mobility of staff and students.

We, at the University of the Witwatersrand, are experimenting with how this can be done with the University of Venda and the University of Limpopo. Our institutional executives have already met to identify potential areas of collaboration. Further meetings are planned with both executives and academic staff members. Among many ideas being considered is the possibility of innovatively rethinking degrees beyond institutional boundaries so that we jointly can produce graduates with skill sets needed by the economy. For example, Wits Engineering Faculty is considering working with Limpopo’s and Venda’s Science Faculties to bridge the knowledge gap by sharing skills and expertise. Graduates from either a particular stream in these faculties or those who graduate with a particular pass may get direct entry into the 3rd year of Wits’ Engineering program. This would allow these graduates to then earn both a science degree from Limpopo and Venda, and an engineering degree from Wits. Should we succeed in doing this, not only would we have enabled a seamless movement between our institutions, but we would have also jointly produced graduates with the skills sets that are urgently required by the economy and society.

Other similar ideas are being thought through in our engagements.  The driving force behind these engagements is a philosophical and strategic realisation among all of our people that we will never truly transform our higher education system and the racial and unequal legacies bequeathed by apartheid, as long as we do not have the courage to proactively breach our institutional boundaries and partner with each other. In this sense we see ourselves as more than simply academics; we see ourselves as pioneering foot soldiers in a broader struggle to transform higher education from its binary racial divides into one that is differentiated, nationally responsive, globally competitive, and one that we can all collectively be proud of.

Professor Adam Habib is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Witwatersrand. He is the author of South Africa’s Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects.