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Institutional diversity, programme differentiation

In South Africa, differentiation in higher education is seen as a way of tackling challenges such as skills shortages and the needs for competitiveness, improved access and equity. The country is aiming for institutional diversity and programme differentiation through state steering, said Dr Nico Cloete, director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation. The government will set enrolment, performance and programme targets for the higher education sector based on national goals, and for universities based on their capacity.

In November 2006 in Paarl, CHET hosted a discussion between senior Ministry of Education officials and academic leaders on the sensitive issue of differentiation. Cloete said it was agreed to develop the ideas of institutional diversity (rather than ‘vertical’ differentiation) and programme (horizontal) differentiation, through state steering.

Under apartheid, institutional differentiation was achieved through a binary divide between universities and technikons (polytechnics) and also, unacceptably, by building institutions for different race groups – those for whites were well resourced urban, often research-oriented institutions and those for other races were poorly supported mostly teaching institutions, often in rural areas.

“It was differentiation through inequality,” said Cloete in a presentation to the CHET seminar titled Diversity and differentiation in the changing South African higher education landscape.

Post-apartheid, major restructuring of the higher education landscape led to mergers and incorporations that dismantled racial and binary divides and slashed the number of institutions from 36 to 23, although no campuses were closed: institutions got bigger. Three institutional types were created: ‘traditional’ universities, universities of technology (the old technikons), and new ‘comprehensive’ institutions combining both types of education.

But Cloete is concerned that ‘covert’ differentiation based on inequality still exists. “This is unacceptable in South Africa, with its human rights and equity culture. We talk left, but act right. The longer that we lack the political will to talk openly about differentiation, the more we will allow inequality to continue or be exacerbated.”

At the same time, dismantling the binary divide has reduced institutional diversity and academic drift is undermining programme differentiation. The country has responded by boosting a small further education system to create a stronger, bigger vocational post-school sector aimed at enrolling a million students within seven years – and by focusing on steering the higher education system towards programme differentiation.

The Minister of Education has the power to determine the size and shape of South Africa’s higher education system, and of each institution. The Minister can decide what types and mix of programmes universities offer, and how many students they have.

The Department of Education has three connected steering mechanisms – institutional plans, approval of programmes, and funding.

In 2006 universities were asked to develop institutional profiles and plans outlining, among other things, the courses they would like to offer and at what level, as well as the numbers of students they would enrol, said Dr Ian Bunting of the Department of Education, in a paper titled Performance indicators for different purposes.

The process of negotiations between universities and government to approve institutional plans has started, with the latter bearing in mind national goals and needs – such as the imperative to alleviate areas of serious skills shortages – when deciding what the higher education system and individual universities’ programme mixes should be.

“The driver for us is that a developmental higher education system must produce the high level personnel that he economy needs,” said Bunting. “We are producing 120,000 graduates a year: all this is aimed at pushing that up to 150,000 and graduating more engineers, doctors and so on.

“At the institutional level, we are drilling down to find out who can contribute to national targets. If the need is for more masters and doctoral graduates, we look at where these are most likely to come from and encourage institutions to produce more.”

One problem is that South Africa does not have a well developed national plan to tackle the skills crisis, making it difficult for higher education to determine exactly the number and kind of skills to develop.

Information and targets set in approved plans – for enrolments, types and fields of study, student success and graduation rates and so on, but not for staffing or funding – will enable the government to know exactly what programmes should be on offer. Its higher education management information system (HEMIS), which extracts student and staff data from each institution, enables government to ascertain whether universities achieve their plans.

Funding is linked to approved institutional plans, and allocations are based on research graduates and publication outputs, teaching outputs weighted by qualification level, and student numbers weighted by study fields and course levels, among other things. To ensure funding certainty among institutions, the Ministry works in three-year funding cycles.

There have been concerns about whether government steering through institutional plans and targets will encourage differentiation. Bunting firmly believed that the new model will indeed enable very different institutions to be forged.

For instance while the research-intensive University Pretoria will be allowed to enrol high proportions of postgraduates, the smaller and more teaching-oriented University of Venda cannot. The ‘comprehensive’ University of Johannesburg can have 7% of its students on masters degrees but, say, a third of its enrolments must be vocational.

“Universities cannot offer lots of high level degrees if they do not have good streams of undergraduates,” Bunting said.

Professor Rolf Stumph, outgoing vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, expressed concern that targets set for institutions did not take the differing quality of their students into account – top universities are able to attract the ‘best’ students:

“This is simply unfair, it is discrimination,” Stumph said. He also warned that targets such as student success and graduate output rates had financial consequences. “The only way for institutions to survive is going to place pressure on standards.”

SANTED’s Trish Gibbon added that the funding formula directly rewarded postgraduate outputs, which would pressure all institutions to become research-intensive, undermining diversity: “Ultimately, everyone is going to work to get more money”.

Bunting explained that except for graduation outputs, which impact on funding, there would be no sanction against a university for not reaching a target, and that current targets are based on actual institutional figures. The idea, he added, was to encourage universities to progress from their current situation and to track that progress.

“Differentiated targets are being set. We are not allowing institutional aspirations to override practical considerations. We are requiring institutions to be differentiated based on their capacity. I can’t see how it can be argued that this is headed for homogeneity”.
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