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Comprehensives – Straddling the knowledge and binary divides

South Africa’s new ‘comprehensive’ universities are tasked with providing both formative and career-focused higher education, and they face enormous challenges – especially those that were created from mergers between universities and technikons (polytechnics) – said Trish Gibbon of the South Africa-Norway Tertiary Education Development Programme (SANTED). The result has been a shift from institutions that were differentiated from each other to ones that are similar but have a greater variety of programmes with different emphases. South Africa is in the process of ‘de-differentiating’ and ‘re-differentiating’.

Gibbon and Professor Angina Parekh, deputy vice-chancellor (academic) of the University of Johannesburg, outlined some of the hurdles faced by South Africa’s six ‘new generation’ institutions in a presentation to the CHET seminar titled The curriculum debate in comprehensive universities: Straddling the knowledge divide.

Their focus was on two institutions that resulted from mergers across the binary divide: the University of Johannesburg (UJ), which combined Rand Afrikaans University and the Wits Technikon; and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), which merged the university and technikon in Port Elizabeth.

Four factors produced ‘de-differentiation’ in post-apartheid South Africa, all of them driven by the government, Gibbon explained. First was the granting of degree-awarding status to technikons, which until then only offered programmes from certificate to advanced diploma level. Second was allowing technikons the right to call themselves universities of technology. Third, colleges of nursing, teaching and agriculture were absorbed into universities.

Finally, major restructuring of the higher education landscape post-apartheid saw mergers and incorporations – including of universities with technikons – that slashed the number of public higher education institutions from 36 to 23 (although no campuses were closed) and turned all of them into universities. Three categories of institutions were created:

Eleven ‘traditional’ universities focussing on research and a mix of discipline-based and professional degree qualifications.
Six universities of technology offering a mix of technological, vocational, career-oriented and professional programmes, mainly certificates and diplomas but also degrees.
Six ‘comprehensive’ universities, combining both types of higher education.

“Re-differentiation is occurring internally within institutions, produced by mergers and campus incorporations, institutions responding to market needs by expanding the number and kinds of course, and commercial activities such as creating companies or market-related courses,” Gibbon said.

Comprehensive universities are in the unusual position of offering a range of educational qualifications, from undergraduate certificates to postgraduate doctoral programmes, and a variety of different types of knowledge, from technological, vocational, career-oriented and professional to general formative.

But bringing together programmes from both sides of the binary line raises many questions. For instance, does the ‘knowledge divide’ run along ‘vertical’ qualification levels, as people progress through the education system, or between scientific and applied knowledge? And the ‘knowledge divide’ may not entirely correspond to the institutional binary divide.

Professor Joe Muller, of the University of Cape Town, argues that there is knowledge gained through doing, and knowledge produced through reasoning and learning general principles. There is never a clear division – there is always a mix – but the knowledge divide is found in relation to the proportions of each.

In comprehensives, there are a number of pressures to breach the knowledge divide.

One is the policy objective of articulation, said Gibbon. Articulation is unlikely between professional and formative programmes. “But there are areas of real overlap in some fields, such as business management, although it could be that they were on the same side of the knowledge divide and became separated. And there are other areas of dispute, such as engineering.”

Another pressure is student demand for transfer, as soon as different programmes are in the same institution.

Finally, there are ideological and status issues around knowledge. Technikon academics say there is little difference between a diploma and a professional degree in engineering, while university academics say there is an ocean between the two.

“We have statements like ‘our kind of knowledge is equal to yours, but different’ – it sounds like apartheid,” Gibbon said.

There are, however, also pressures to maintain the knowledge divide. “One is the labour market’s need for a range of skills levels in a variety of occupational fields – the need for differentiated programmes and qualifications,” explained Gibbon. Another is the incompatibility of different types of knowledge.

Also, the recently published Higher Education Qualifications Framework pronounces that a diploma is not a step towards a Bachelor of Technology degree, which used to simply entail adding a fourth year onto a three-year diploma.

“It asserts that they are different: a diploma is a direct preparation for an occupation, not a trajectory towards a higher qualification, and that the purpose, complexity and orientation of a degree is sufficiently different that it cannot be attained through a single catch-up year.”

The ‘knowledge divide’, Gibbon admitted, is a controversial topic. Indeed, some people argue that there is no knowledge divide at all – that it is an ideological construct related to power – while others say it is almost insurmountable.

“We keep reiterating that only way we can tell where the truth lies is by looking in detail at the curricula.”

SANTED is hosting a collaborative project between UJ and NMMU to do just that. It is designed to assist comprehensives to develop new qualification structures and academic profiles. Pilot case studies are being conducted in 11 fields, analysing curricula content against the purposes of different qualifications on both sides of the binary divide, to see if pathways can be built between them.

Said Gibbon: “This work has begun to produce fresh ways of understanding the knowledge demands of qualifications that have different purposes and orientations” and more refined ways of understanding what properly constitutes a diploma or a degree in a particular field.

“Some of the studies have demonstrated that there is a real distinction between a diploma and a degree and that articulation possibilities are very limited. While there are common elements in the first year, from then on the paths diverge quite rapidly. So articulation is most properly positioned after first year, when a student can choose a diploma or a degree route.”

A challenge for comprehensives is to construct full degree curricula, probably on the applied technology side of the technology divide, while not abandoning diploma provision.

“This is highly intensive, complex and time-consuming work,” Gibbon concluded. Issues are unlikely to be resolved by application of knowledge principles alone, as there are far too many powerful interests around who are likely to shape outcomes. There are also greatly varying levels of understanding of what this is all about within institutions and among academics.

“So internally differentiated institutions present many challenges – at the level of strategic positioning, at the level of management, and critically, at the level of the curriculum.”
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