The South African government's decision to create 'comprehensive' universities combining formative and career-focused education might have seemed like a good idea at the time. But the reality has been fraught and complicated, said Professor Angina Parekh, a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Johannesburg. "The problem is that, having done mergers, there now isn't a very clear idea of what the institutions are and how they should deliver on their mandate. It has been left to universities to decide." Academic drift could threaten the programme differentiation that was to be a key advantage of 'new generation' universities.
The National Plan for Higher Education provided four rationales for comprehensive institutions, Parekh explained in a joint presentation to the CHET seminar titled The curriculum debate in comprehensive universities: Straddling the knowledge divide.
Comprehensive universities were created to: enhance access to a wider variety of courses with different entry requirements; promote articulation and student mobility between career-focused and formative courses; expand research opportunities by linking the applied research of technikons (polytechnics) to university research strengths; and, through their increased scope and capacity, respond better to regional needs.
But there are major obstacles on the road to achieving these goals, in the experience of two of South Africa's leading 'comprehensives', the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth on the east coast.
The two universities share a number of characteristics. Both are contact institutions created from mergers between a university and technikon, have a similar spread of programme offerings with no medical or dental school, and neither is research-intensive.
But Johannesburg is far bigger - it has 45,000 students against 25,000 at NMMU - and they are differently located, with UJ one of six universities in a small but populace province while NMMU is the only university in its region. And while UJ was created out of a strong university and weaker technikon, it was the other way around for NMMU.
How are comprehensive universities positioning themselves?
"We recognise that we're in an ideal position to recast ourselves in exciting and innovative ways. In UJ or NMMU-speak, the notion of a 'new generation' university is to be entrepreneurial and engaged," said Parekh. "But there are ambiguities. And while there is an ideal involved in being 'new generation', the reality on the ground is very different.
"We want to be different from traditional institutions because if we try to emulate them we run the risk of being second rate. Therefore we must position ourselves in an original way. The problem is that we don't really know what that means, and what the implications are of being a 'new generation' university in relation to students and the labour market.
"We want to play in the big league but hang on to technological and career-focused education and be accessible to students. How do we achieve that balance and, importantly, can we be both? How risky is it, in relation to external perceptions and internal management, to straddle a vast array of different kinds of programmes?"
Regarding the student market, Parekh said the question was how to widen access but also attract students of exceptional talent. "We want high achievers on our physics and chemistry degrees, but we also have an obligation and a mandate to offer certificate and diploma courses. I'm not sure that we do that well."
Also, South Africa has an unsophisticated student market. Comprehensive universities worry that students do not fully understand them, and that they run the risk of losing strong students to other institutions. There has, said Parekh, already been a flight of Afrikaans students to Northwest University.
"We are struggling with how to brand ourselves in the marketplace. Do we produce technicians or mid-level careerists or high-flying professionals, or all of them but as master of none? We do not want to confuse the market, or it will simply move elsewhere."
The University of Johannesburg, a merger of two major institutions, is experiencing pressure from the market to describe exactly what it is. The market is not responding positively to the idea of comprehensive universities - "it wants us to be traditional".
In addition, South Africa's university funding formula favours research institutions, Parekh said. As a result, comprehensives do not have much option but to move towards becoming more research-intensive. "In reality, everything we do at UJ is trying to emulate research universities. We are making appointments towards research and innovation strengths."
This drift towards being a traditional university will undermine institutional and programme differentiation - and is also being encouraged, internally, by a reward programme that favours an elitist system, she added. While UJ has staff from both sides of the former binary divide, for academics to be promoted, they have to demonstrate research potential and meet requirements that are associated with traditional universities.
Further, said Parekh, comprehensive universities like UJ and NMMU have to grapple with diversity in their student and staff composition, differences in institutional culture and academic chauvinism. "University academics are very intolerant and sceptical of the ability of staff from the technikon sector to manage and lead the institution".
Mergers during the early 2000s created multi-campus institutions and, in the case of UJ and NMMU, campuses were formerly either part of a technikon or a university. Provision of formative and career-focused programmes have largely remained where they were before.
"The challenges we face are not just about values, culture and ethos, but also about organisational structures and arrangements that entrench historical divides. We want faculties to embrace both university and technikon programmes and staff, but the physical divide is still there, and removing it will require huge resources from the state."
Finally, another internal issue is straddling the knowledge divide. Comprehensives are still offering programmes the way they were previously offered by the different institutions.
These kinds of divisions - diversity between campuses in people, culture, programme types and physical location - support internal differentiation in comprehensives such as UJ and NMMU. But they are not what policy intended and do little to achieve the goals of improving access, promoting student mobility, enhancing research or responding to regional needs.
The dilemma for South Africa's 'new generation' universities is to find new ways to meet these goals and achieve a balance between formative and applied programmes and research without drifting towards 'traditional' provision and undermining differentiation.
The nature and character of comprehensive universities seem to be confusing many academics and university leadership. Some will make sure the traditional character is maintained at all costs because that what they know. My understanding is that when you merge an organisation you create a new environment for everyone to feel accepted and part of the team.
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