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Africa needs differentiated higher education systems

In a seminal 1993 article, Manuel Castells argued that universities are social systems and historically produced institutions that attempt to make seemingly contradictory functions compatible. He described the four functions of universities as: producing values and social legitimation, selecting the dominant elites, training the labour force, and generating scientific knowledge and supporting its application in society [1].

The challenge is twofold.

First, a country needs institutions that are strong and dynamic enough to withstand the tensions between these contradictory functions.

Second, the fulfilment of different functions cannot be resolved within individual universities alone – the different functions also need to be distributed differently throughout a higher education and research system in which particular institutional types undertake different combinations of functions.

Restating Castells’ observations two decades later, Philip Altbach (2013) [2] argued that a clearly differentiated academic system is needed for research universities to flourish. For that, developing countries need to differentiate the missions of institutions in the post-secondary system and organise institutions in a rational way. But, according to Altbach:

“The fact is that few if any developing countries have a differentiated academic system in place; and this central organisational requirement remains a key task... These institutions must be clearly identified and supported. There must be arrangements so that the number of research universities will be sufficiently limited so that funding is available for them and that other resources, such as well-qualified academics, are not spread too thinly.”

Advantages of differentiation

In debating these combinations of functions – diversity and differentiation – in the African context, the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, or CHET, organised a seminar where Frans van Vught (2007) argued that differentiation has the following positive effects for higher education systems [3]:

  • It improves access for students with different educational backgrounds and achievements.
  • It enables social mobility by offering different modes of entry into higher education, multiple forms of transfer, and upward as well as ‘honourable downward’ mobility.
  • It can meet the needs of the labour market by creating a growing variety of specialisations that are needed for economic and social development.
  • It serves the needs of interest groups by allowing many to develop their own identity and political legitimisation.
  • It permits the crucial combination of elite and mass higher education: mass systems are more diversified than elite systems as they absorb a heterogeneous clientele and try to respond to a range of demands from the labour market.

Van Vught concluded that despite these obvious advantages, in recent decades tertiary systems around the world had been becoming less diverse and differentiated.

He attributed this to a combination of uniform – one-size-fits-all – government policies that tend to drive towards homogenisation, and the ability of powerful academic communities to defend their norms and aspirations.

Institutional isomorphism in Africa

At the same CHET seminar Njuguna Ng’ethe from the University of Nairobi reported on one of the first (and only) systematic studies focusing on differentiation in Africa (Ng’ethe et al 2008) [4]. This World Bank-sponsored investigation covered higher education systems in 12 African and some European and East Asian countries.

Ng’ethe observed that the expansion of higher education in Africa had not been accompanied by differentiation. Instead, there was evidence of institutional isomorphism whereby newly established institutions tended to replicate the dominant ‘mother’ university (MacGregor 2008) [5]. In other words, the impulse was for universities to become more and more alike, rather than to develop diverse missions.

Ng’ethe highlighted four factors that contribute to the trend towards institutional homogenisation in Africa (MacGregor 2008).

First, in most African countries, higher education funding is based on total student enrolments. Thus, even if an institution starts out with the intention of specialising in a particular area, in a context of low regulation institutions are free to add other academic programmes, which are often money-spinners – meaning cheaper but popular. This can have the effect of undermining the potential for differentiation.

Second, the uniform approach to institutional governance, in which institutions are established in the same way, under similar laws, does not allow for differentiation in governance mechanisms. If this is added to the undifferentiated government funding mechanism, then there is great homogenising pressure.

Third, a phenomenon in African higher education is offshore (private) providers. While these institutions do introduce some level of differentiation by offering degrees from other countries, they also offer popular courses in money-making areas – for example business administration or information and communication technology. In this regard, Ng’ethe concluded that “overseas universities are not driving a high level of differentiation”.

Finally, even when it appears that there are different types of institutions as reflected in different nomenclature – such as ‘universities of technology’ – more often than not, the curricula are not very different across these apparently different institutional types. The same can be said of academic programmes where different course titles belie otherwise very similar content.

Differentiation-enhancing policies needed

An important question in this is whether differentiated systems are more likely to be created by a strong, regulating government, or by autonomous institutions operating in market-like settings.

The situation in Africa is not different from elsewhere: that is, autonomous higher education institutions do not attempt to develop a profile that is different from all other higher education institutions.

Instead of looking for a fitting niche, each institution is driven by income- and status-maximisation. As a consequence, higher education institutions are naturally inclined to mimic other successful institutions, thereby effectively limiting system-level differentiation.

As argued by Nico Cloete et al (2015) [6] in the new book Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education, these change dynamics can only be moved in a differentiation-enhancing direction through effective governmental policies and regulations.

Unfortunately, as the HERANA – Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa – project data show, the current situation in Africa deviates from this emerging understanding of the factors that stimulate system differentiation in higher education.

First, governmental policies aimed at increasing the capacity of the higher education system by establishing new universities have generally used one basic university model, implying that the new universities attempt to become ‘clones’ of existing universities.

Second, public and private institutions that had the level of institutional autonomy that would allow them to develop unique profiles have, in general, combined mimicking and budget-maximising behaviour – for instance, in the form of recruiting large numbers of fee-paying private students in cheap courses where the student-staff ratios often exceed 50:1 and sometimes approaches 100:1.

Furthermore, a pact about the role of higher education and appropriate policies is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for differentiation that produces a research-intensive institution.

There are no easy World Bank-type prescriptions for countries on how to achieve differentiation, particularly not in Africa where it has not been done.

The debate in South Africa

What may be instructive in this regard is a brief summary of the debates and developments relating to transformation and differentiation that have been taking place in South Africa.

In newly democratic South Africa, the National Commission on Higher Education declined to address the issue of differentiation because it was so divisive.

In 2000, the new Council on Higher Education put forward a bold proposal for a four ‘institutional type’ system, ranging from institutions that would do only undergraduate teaching to universities that would focus more on postgraduate teaching and research.

The minister of education and the majority of institutions rejected this suggestion. Instead, a proposal to restructure the ‘apartheid’ landscape with institutional mergers was put forward and implemented by government.

But by 2014 South Africa was very close to having a pact on the need for a diverse and differentiated system. The National Development Plan, from the presidency, states this unambiguously. The Department of Science and Technology is implementing differentiation with competitive funding.

The Department of Higher Education and Training supports it by funding research publications as well as substantial funding for graduating doctoral students – but seems to be paralysed regarding putting a comprehensive implementation policy on the table.

A political problem

During HERANA Phase 1 (2008-11), the research group came to the conclusion that the widely held, common sense notion that Africa has many good policies but not the capacity to implement them, is not entirely true.

For a start, there are many poorly conceived policies that have simply been cut-and-pasted from policies in ‘successful’ countries. Second, the capacity is not as weak as is often assumed – in a number of the ministries in the eight HERANA countries, the research group encountered very well qualified and experienced bureaucrats.

Three main problems that paralyse implementation are: inappropriate policy-mimicking; frequent policy changes by successive ministers – every new minister wants a new policy; and, as in South Africa, disagreements between minister and bureaucrats, disagreements among bureaucrats and, not to forget, disagreements between university leaders.

Two clear lessons can be learned from the South African case.

First, it is important to have an ongoing debate that includes government departments (beyond just the education department), university leadership and research organisations.

Second, it is very important to provide research-based information about the performance of the system: if the policy discussion is not informed by evidence it will simply oscillate between different ideological positions.

Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation and coordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, HERANA; extraordinary professor at the Institute for Post-School Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa; extraordinary professor in the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy at Stellenbosch University, South Africa; and honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.


  • 1- Castells M (1993) “The University System: Engine of development in the new world economy”. In: A Ransom, S-M Khoo and V Selvaratnam (eds) Improving Higher Education in Developing Countries. Washington DC: The World Bank, pp 65-80.
  • 2- Altbach P (2013) “Advancing the National and Global Knowledge Economy: The role of research universities in developing countries”. Studies in Higher Education 38(3): 316-330.
  • 3- Van Vught F (2007) Diversity and Differentiation in Higher Education Systems. Paper presented at the CHET 10th Anniversary Conference, Cape Town, 16 November 2007.
  • 4- Ng'ethe N, Subotzky G and Afeti G (2008) Differentiation and Articulation in Tertiary Education Systems: A study of twelve African countries. Washington DC: World Bank.
  • 5- MacGregor K (2008) “Expansion in Africa delivers more of the same”. University World News: Special Africa Edition, Issue No 1.
  • 6- Cloete N, Maassen P, Bunting I, Bailey T, Wangenge-Ouma G and Van Schalkwyk F (2015) “Managing Contradictory Functions and Related Policy Issues”. In: N Cloete, P Maassen and T Bailey (eds), Knowledge Production and Contradictory Functions in African Higher Education. Cape Town: African Minds.
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