South Africa’s six ‘new generation’ universities, charged with straddling the binary divide, are battling to find strategic identities and to preserve their purpose. For these ‘comprehensive’ universities, a good place to start thinking about programme differentiation could be at the end – they need to ask “What kind of knowledgeable, qualified person is each programme trying to produce?” – said Professor Joe Muller, director of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School in Humanities. Hard choices will need to be made, to create institutional niches on the basis of intellectual competency.
‘Comprehensives’ are trying to find ways of mixing programmes in the same fields, such as engineering, that were previously offered by different departments with different ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ focuses, at different levels and with different exit purposes.
“The real trick is that comprehensive universities preserve their purpose and that there isn’t an inadvertent drift into becoming something else,” said Muller. “The only way to combat structural patterns or tendencies like this drift, is via policy intervention.”
In a talk, Knowledge niches, Muller argued at the CHET seminar that debate about differentiation seemed fatally divided. “Our analysis – our head – says ‘convergence’. Our policy desires and our heart say ‘divergence’.
“Our Darwinian urges say it’s rational to converge on the adaptive trait, which is research-based. But something else tells us that if we go exclusively that route, it will be fatal. Our head emphasises constraint; our heart emphasises the possibilities of voluntaristic action and of changing mindsets. Somewhere between we have to recognise the constraints and the limited choices they bequeath to us, and then operate within those as best we can.”
South Africa has opted for programme rather than institutional differentiation, and the two are quite different, he continued. “Institutions that merge have a unique chance to redefine their mission niche and strategic direction. What economists call ‘path dependence’ will exercise a strong brake, however, on what can be changed before we start to show ‘morbid symptoms’. And I think a specific directed choice is necessary, otherwise institutions will begin to show these morbid symptoms.”
What are the strategic options, Muller asked?
One of the choices comprehensive universities have is to follow Darwinian instincts and mimic other institutions. But which institutions should be mimicked? The question, he said, is complicated because hybrid types of courses are beginning to emerge, with third and fourth generation professions insisting on programmes that are tailor-made in a way not generally found in traditional institutions.
“But is there a brake on hybridity? Or does our future look like an increasingly individual one, with each institution choosing its hybrid mix, and becoming highly specialised?”
A second factor to consider is that programme differentiation is nothing new. Its history goes back to medieval universities, where two key rifts created knowledge divides. The first division was between the liberal arts and the technical (applied) arts, which were excluded from universities until the 19th century, said Muller.
“The second division was located within the medieval curricula of liberal arts, between the two modal forms of medieval curriculum: trivium (arts of the inner, such as theology and literature) and quadrivium (arts of the outer, like science). So we see this knowledge divide started early, and it is one that runs deep.”
There is a further well known, studied and acknowledged division in the literature between the ‘pure’ humanities and sciences and the ‘applied’ humanities and sciences as well as variations such as ‘hard pure’ and ‘soft applied’.
“What all this foregrounds is something that institutional differentiation studies don’t highlight – that the divisions in knowledge create different tribes with different tribal domains, within the same institution.”
This is why Muller suggested that, when thinking about programme differentiation, the starting point for comprehensive universities should be the exit point – the qualifications and kind of knowledgeable person that a programme is trying to produce.
Leaving aside traditional universities (the ‘pures’) because “they still generally persist with a fairly standard pattern, moving from the bachelor degree up to the Phd,” he said it would be worthwhile looking at programme channels consisting of old and some knowledge-based new professions (such as sports science), with different qualification routes, lengths and levels, and at general occupations, old and new trades, with long qualification paths moving up levels of certificates to advanced diplomas that enable registration for a degree.
The point for comprehensive universities, Muller said, was that there were often different programme mixes in the same fields with different orientations and levels and exit purposes: “In each of the adjacent programme streams, you get similarities. But they are different with differentiated purpose and differentiated knowledge combinations, and letting these drift into one another is what must be guarded against.”
A further implication is that each comprehensive university is “highly advised to choose adjacent programme clusters”. Trying to choose across programme clusters would “end up with a muddy institutional mission, sending mixed signals to students and to employers, and generally risking a loss of credibility.
“Equally comprehensives cannot have it all – they have to choose. If institutions don’t choose they will be hollowed out from within. Effectively they will not be one institution, but many different institutions in one.”
The choice, Muller concluded, should be made on the basis of intellectual competency. An institution should not spread itself too thinly. Rather, comprehensive universities should find a niche in terms of knowledge, enabling them to become niched institutionally.
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