Two decades ago, after the collapse of the apartheid regime, South Africa was right at the top of desirable destinations on the policy tourism circuit. A comparison with the contemporary evolution in central and eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, another policy hot-spot, is illuminating.
Much was in common. Funding from foundations (mainly American but some western European) flowed generously to both regions; development aid somewhat less generously because it was often subordinated to business opportunism in the guise of 'investment'.
Off-the-peg policy advice was freely offered, generally of the tainted neo-liberal variety, which went unchallenged until the early 21st-century banking collapse. Consultants clustered like vultures.
But the differences are perhaps more striking than these similarities.
First, the transformation of South Africa's universities and technikons (polytechnics) was seen as absolutely central to building a new rainbow nation. In contrast, east of the Elbe the reform of higher education was regarded as a side-show.
Apart from the chaotic emergence of a fee-charging private sector in some countries, notably Poland and Hungary, and the removal of the heavy hand of communist state bureaucracies, few serious reforms were undertaken before the turn of the new century (if then).
Secondly, 'normal service' has now been resumed in central and eastern Europe. The region has been reincorporated into the European state system as a second tier or outer ring. Right-wing politics are in the ascendant, partly in conformity with the trend in western Europe but partly because of the positioning difficulties social democracy has encountered in a post-communist ('socialist') environment. Social inequalities have increased, mitigated by a general increase in the standard of living.
The contrast with South Africa could not be sharper. Of course social inequalities have persisted - and are still structured along largely racial lines (although big disparities have emerged within racial groups).
But, unlike central and eastern Europe, radical - and transformative even revolutionary - politics have persisted. No 'normalisation' has been possible, or desired, because there was no pre-apartheid regime that could be restored and the challenges of social justice and equity (curiously but revealingly of little concern in post-communist Europe) too great.
It is tempting to link these two aspects - the centrality of higher education reform in post-apartheid South Africa and its marginality in post-communist Europe - with the larger contrast between the process of social 'transformation', radical, restless and incomplete, in South Africa and the process of social 'reconstruction', conservative even restorative and closed off, in central and eastern Europe.
It is no accident that 'transition' rather than 'transformation' was the preferred description in post-communist Europe.
The HERANA programme
Certainly any review of the work of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa (HERANA) programme would tend to support that conclusion. Of course, the scope of HERANA - funded partly by Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Kresge and Norad - extends beyond South Africa.
Although not pan-African in extent, nor pan-Africanist in ideology, the network embraces institutions across Sub-Saharan Africa, and so has the potential to develop useful comparative perspectives. Like the high-profile 'Bologna process' in Europe this initiative may be evidence of the growth of supranational regional affinities that could well become a major characteristic of the development of higher education systems in the 21st century.
Yet as an initiative of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) based in Cape Town, it is firmly anchored in the context, and experience, of South Africa.
In both respects, Africanist and South African, HERANA offers a very different 'take' on the internationalisation of higher education, in sharp contrast to the obsessive focus on geopolitical influence and market shares that has become dominant in North America and (most of) Europe over the past three decades.
This 'take', arguably, is a throw-back to the anti-colonial movements of the 20th century. But it is also, equally arguably, a throw-forward to the post-capitalist ecologically aware social movements of the 21st century.
The HERANA themes
The research work of HERANA has been clustered around three themes.
The first is familiar enough in the West and across most OECD countries (although initially resisted in central and eastern Europe because it was too redolent of communist-era planning) - higher education and economic development.
This theme has culminated in a major synthesis report written by Nico Cloete, Tracy Bailey, and Peter Maassen (of the University of Oslo, HERANA's only partner outside Africa).
It is rooted in an extensive programme of work - books, reports and chapters; masters dissertations and doctoral theses; and also more popular journalism. Together they comprise an impressive ensemble. The particular focus of this first theme is how development agendas relate to the academic core mission of, especially more research intensive, universities.
Familiar as this theme is to higher education systems in highly developed countries HERANA's treatment is distinctive, placing more emphasis on the social dimensions of development, in particular capacity-building, and focusing less narrowly on the production of highly skilled workers and advanced research than would be typical in North America and western Europe. The preoccupations of HERANA go wider than the focus on relevance, applications and (in the case of the United Kingdom's forthcoming Research Excellence Framework exercise) 'impact'.
The second research theme is less familiar to those who inhabit the heartland of advanced higher education systems in the West - North America, north-western Europe and their outliers - but also the new academic empires of the East in India, China, Malaysia and Singapore.
Its focus is higher education and democracy. Within this broad theme three particular topics have been addressed - the connections between education and participation in democratic institutions (including political values); more specifically the links between higher education and national parliaments (both ways - the involvement of university graduates in political parties and the significance of higher education as a political issue); and finally the role of students in university governance.
In the West the links between higher education and citizenship are typically addressed largely in rhetorical terms - at any rate, in the United States where great play is made of the role of a college education in forming the civic values of the republic; in Europe they are barely addressed at all.
There are two reasons for this contrast between the vitality and urgency of these issues in South Africa (and Africa at large) and the passivity and formality with which the same issues are addressed in many developed countries.
The first is that in these countries democracy is regarded as a completed project, a settled achievement of the 19th century finally consolidated after 1945 (or, in a case of frustrated development, after 1989 in central and eastern Europe). In Africa democracy remains a contested project, unfinished and incomplete.
In this respect the African perspective is much closer to global realities. Its emphasis on unfinished - and, therefore, urgent - business is in sharp contrast to the conservatism and complacency of the West.
But the second reason is that in the advanced West, much of which has been under the rule of right-wing parties for the past three decades, the role of higher education as an engine of market growth has taken priority over its potential for emancipation, whether of communities or of individuals. The decline of affirmative action in the United States, and the shallow and brittle political support for 'widening participation' in the United Kingdom, are examples of this retreat form democratic engagement in (and for) the academy.
In South Africa in particular the role played by higher education in promoting or frustrating participatory democracy, within the context of social equity and justice, remains a real - and raw - issue.
The third research theme is the research-policy nexus.
At first sight this is a familiar policy preoccupation also in North America and Europe. The same emphasis on 'evidence-based' policy-making and the same fascination with new formulations of knowledge production (for example, disciplinarily eclectic and socially embedded 'Mode 2' knowledge), can be observed.
But in practice the influence of social scientists in particular on public policy has retreated in the face of more ideologically inspired 'think-tanks' and market-driven management consultants. At the same time research establishments have resisted, largely successfully, these more open formulations of knowledge.
The success of HERANA suggests that a more positive environment exists in Africa for the exploration of the research-policy nexus.
But the most distinctive feature of HERANA, of course, is the 'A' word - advocacy. It is this yoking of research and advocacy that is the programme's most radical feature. But it is one that grows naturally out of the South African experience over the past two decades.
Of course, such a linkage would not have seemed out-of-place in the United States in the era of the New Left, the Great Society and civil rights. But that is long ago. As far as the United Kingdom, and many other mainstream European countries, is concerned it is difficult to recall a similar engagement between social and political activism and the reform of higher education. In the 'old world' of Europe there is little appetite for radical adventure - in state or academy.
However, the wider world outside this 'old world' of Europe, a world that is also inexorably slipping out of the hegemonic grip of the United States, is not like that; it is much more like South Africa with its open agendas and uncompleted business.
Perhaps we assume too readily that the development of higher education systems, and the internationalisation of the academy, will be decisively shaped by the market agendas that dominate policy-making in the old hegemonic 'core'.
The work of HERANA, and of similar initiatives, suggests that it is to the global 'periphery' (in fact, the global 'majority') that we should turn to anticipate the future of higher education in all its frailty and potential.
* Sir Peter Scott has been professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, since 2010. Prior to this he was the vice-chancellor of Kingston University, following on from his role as pro vice-chancellor for external affairs at the University of Leeds. He was also professor of education and director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Education. Before going to Leeds in 1992, he was for 16 years editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement. He is also chair of the research advisory panel, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (UK), chair of the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning and fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
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