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SOUTH AFRICA: Differentiation consensus emerges

According to Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press, the new vision produced by South Africa's National Planning Commission advocates the idea of an endowment society where in order to truly develop "you need to provide citizens with a set of endowments: decent education, good infrastructure and reliable transport". She stated that in some areas "we are on the path, in others not". We suggest that the higher education system is 'on the path' and has the potential to meet the knowledge and high-level human resource needs for South Africa for 2030 and beyond.

In a commissioned paper we wrote on higher education, as a contribution to the commission's National Development Plan: Vision for 2030, we characterise the current system as being medium knowledge-producing and differentiated, with low participation and high attrition rates, with insufficient capacity for adequate skills production and with a small 'chronic in crisis' sub-sector.

But despite some serious shortcomings, it higher education is not a system in crisis.

Medium knowledge producing and differentiated system

Globally, the South African higher education system was placed by the Shanghai JiaoTong Academic Ranking of World Universities' 2008 country rankings in the range between 27 and 33 along with the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Ireland.

According to the World Economic Forum, South Africa is ranked 49 out of 139 countries in terms of local availability of specialised research and training. This is an enviable achievement for a developing nation.

Between 1998 and 2009, there has been a steady increase in research publication output and in international citation impact. However, the proportion of masters graduates remained constant at 19% and the proportion of doctoral graduates decreased from 15% to 13%. Still, PhD graduates increased from 961 in 2000 to 1,420 in 2010, an average annual increase of 4%.

However, knowledge production capacity is not evenly distributed in South Africa. The system is differentiated, as measured by a combination of input and output variables such as masters and doctoral enrolments and graduates, proportion of staff with doctorates, proportion of PhD graduates to permanent staff and ISI accredited publication output.

In terms of an analysis carried out by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET), four universities (Cape Town, Rhodes, Stellenbosch and the Witwatersrand) are in the high knowledge-producing category. All other universities (with the exception of Walter Sisulu and Limpopo) are in the medium category, and all the universities of technology are in the low knowledge-producing grouping.

Despite drastically scaled up investment in knowledge generation since 1994, South Africa still only has approximately 1.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) researchers per 1,000 employed, which is relatively fewer than countries that have a similar ratio of research and development spending to gross domestic product, for example Portugal (4.8%) and Italy (3.6%).

The steady growth in postgraduate output is still too slow to meet labour market demand, including the academic labour market.

Low participation, high attrition, insufficient capacity

South Africa's participation rate (enrolment as a proportion of 20- to 24-year-olds) of 17% is significantly lower than that of comparable middle-income countries. This is a cause for concern given the strong relationship between higher education participation and economic development and global competitiveness.

Furthermore, the participation rate for African (and 'coloured', or mixed-race) students has not increased beyond 13%. This is despite the fact that two-thirds of all students in higher education in 2009 were African.

Given the size of the 20- to 24-year-old age cohort in the African population, increases in African participation rates will therefore only be realised if there is substantial growth in the higher education system.

Low participation is compounded by low throughput and graduation rates. Cohort studies point to high levels of attrition and racially skewed patterns of student performance where black student completion rates are reported to be less than half that of white students.

The distribution of students across the higher education and post-secondary sectors also does not optimally support access and medium-level skills development.

In particular, the combined post-secondary and private sub-systems in South Africa account for only 18% of enrolments, compared to 60% in Brazil and 73% in the highly differentiated Californian system. In Brazil, 60% of higher education students are in private institutions, as opposed to 8% in South Africa.

However, the most alarming anomaly in South Africa is the nearly one million youths between the ages of 18 and 25 who have a school-leaving certificate but are not in education, employment or training (NEET's).

Over the past 25 years, South Africa's economic growth trajectory has been marked by an increasing dependence on skilled individuals. The World Bank report, Closing the Skills Gap found that South Africa is foregoing significant economic growth (together with employment growth and reductions in inequality) due to the weaknesses of its education system and resulting skills shortages.

Large skills gaps persist in both the artisanal professions as well as in science, engineering and management. In addition to a general undersupply of high-level skills, a major problem is therefore with post-secondary (medium-level) skills.

Institutions in crisis

A small number of universities continue to experience problems and remain relatively unstable. In our National Planning Commission paper we discuss the reasons for this and the mixed responses to various interventions that have been made since 1994 to address the shortcomings.


International experience shows that massification of higher education without steered differentiation leads to either an overcrowded low quality system, or to market-driven inequality. In the paper, we review the South African experience with legislative and other approaches to differentiation.

We propose that the key driver for further differentiation must be to make the system more responsive and efficient in terms of its core functions of human resource development, knowledge generation and the provision of opportunities for social mobility and the strengthening of equity, social justice and democracy.

Worldwide the most common strategy of differentiation is concentration, which can take two forms; selected institutional strengthening, or performance-based strengthening of relevant topics, departments, centers or networks.

China, India, Germany and France, to mention but a few, have embarked on choosing a small number of institutions on which to concentrate resources and talent so that they can become 'world-class'. The other method is to establish national 'ring-fenced' funds, as in the case of Brain Korea's 2021, to strengthen academic and research networks across institutions and basic and applied fields.

There appears to be an emerging consensus in South Africa on the principles that should shape the future differentiation of the system.

In particular, there is acknowledgement that the country needs a variety of institutions to meet the different needs of students and for knowledge production and socio-economic development. However, this is premised on the understanding that all universities must offer quality undergraduate education and address social justice and equity imperatives.

A higher education system for 2030 and beyond

Guided by this analysis of the current system and a view that higher education is key to delivering the knowledge requirements for development, we offer a set of proposals which have the potential to steer the system towards one which is valued by society for its demonstrable contributions to economic development and the strengthening of democracy and social justice.

The key proposition is to strengthen coordination and steering of an expanded and diverse system.

Given the limits to the existing university infrastructure and capacity, we propose that a significant increase in participation will require a constant but modest increase in the university sector (along the lines of the enrolment growth projected by the Department of Higher Education and Training) and a significant increase in the public and private post-secondary further education and training college sectors.

We also emphasise the need to enhance participation through improved throughput.

The following is a summary of the proposals.

Coordination and steering in a differentiated system

The government and higher education institutions should reach formal and binding agreements (a pact) on the principles that will underpin the coordination and steering (including funding) of the differentiated system, as this will be the basis of agreements and compacts at a system-wide and institutional level.

Based on these agreements, a ministerial statement should be issued on the agreed scope of activities of each of the 23 public universities for a five-year period, in the first instance.

1. South Africa has to set participation rate targets at, say, five-year intervals, which will take into consideration an expanded and differentiated range of students and institutions, as well as strategies to enhance success.

2. Agreements should be reached on a planning model that builds and strengthens the current enrolment planning approach. Targets (enrolments and graduates) will have to cover the full range of skills and decisions will have to be taken about which type of institution contributes most efficiently to which skill level.

3. The model must address South Africa's need to increase training in a number of scarce skills areas and to vastly expand medium-level skills provision, especially in the public and private post-secondary sectors.

4. The plan needs to reflect better coordination between the Department of Higher Education and Training and the Department of Science and Technology to support knowledge production and improve and design new incentives, particularly for increasing doctoral output.

Building quality in a differentiated system

5. Strengthen departments and units and networks of research excellence through performance-based grants.

6. The role of the science councils should be reviewed, and in order to strengthen both training and research output, consideration should be given to more closely and formally aligning research councils with universities.

7. Differentiation will require that all public higher education institutions should provide education and skills training at an acceptable quality level, meaning that system-wide standards have to be established in terms of facilities, staff qualifications etc.

8. National transparent processes and regulations need to be developed to better facilitate student mobility.

9. A plan needs to be developed to increase the effectiveness of the educational process in higher education, including the availability of flexible curricula frameworks and pathways, incentives for teaching excellence, technology support for teaching and learning, continued support for academic development and the professionalisation of teaching in higher education.

10. The current quality assurance framework will need to be revised in the light of an expanded and diversified system.

11. A differentiated system guided by evidence-based planning and performance monitoring will require the maintenance and strengthening of the HEMIS information system.

Funding in a differentiated system

12. Revisions to the funding framework for universities must be based on the needs of a differentiated system, with adequate provision for both teaching and research. Over time and especially as the quality assurance system matures, greater emphasis should be placed on providing incentives for graduate output.

13. Student financial aid in public higher education: An incremental plan needs to be developed for the provision of full funding assistance (in the form of loans and bursaries) to all students who qualify for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). Students who do not qualify for NSFAS loans should have access to bank loans, backed by state sureties.

14. Student financial aid in private higher education: As an incentive to expansion in the private sector, consideration should be given to extending the NSFAS, in the first instance, to qualifying students in not-for-profit registered private colleges.

15. The proportion of GDP for government funding of higher education has declined marginally from 0.76% in 2000 to 0.69% in 2009. The general perception that education is 'well, if not over-funded' in international comparative is true for schooling, but not for higher education. The average direct government subsidy for universities in Europe is over 75%, while in South Africa it is now 40% of budget, which is also much lower in percentage terms than the rest of Africa. If the quality of higher education is not to suffer, additional funding will be needed to support an increase in participation and knowledge production.

Supporting institutions in chronic crisis

16. The DHET should identify institutions in ongoing crisis mode that have not benefited from earlier recovery interventions. Dedicated support should be provided to such institutions to develop and implement comprehensive renewal plans over a five-year period. If progress is not evident after five years, consideration should be given to reviewing the status of the institution.


The paper concludes with an identification of the key risks that could impede progress towards the achievement of the identified goals, including the:

  • Failure of the college system to significantly expand.
  • Lack of adequate planning and implementation capacity in government and higher education institutions.
  • Lack of policy consistency and stability over the next 10 to 15 years.
  • Continued instability of some universities.
  • Shortfalls in new funding to support a quality system.

    * Nasima Badsha is chief executive officer of the Cape Higher Education Consortium. She was formerly deputy director-general in the Department of Education, was an advisor to the minister of education and is currently an advisor to the minister of science and technology.

    * Professor Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation. He is also extraordinary professor of higher education and the University of the Western Cape, visiting professor of the Erasmus Mundus masters programme in higher education at the University of Oslo, and honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town.

    * The full National Planning Commission paper by Nasima Badsha and Nico Cloete can be accessed here.

    * South Africa's new National Development Plan: Vision for 2030 can be accessedhere.
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