In late 2007, the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, as part of its 10th anniversary celebrations, hosted a seminar in Cape Town on differentiation in African tertiary education – or more accurately, the lack of it. This is a huge problem, hampering human development and preventing access to and the production of the range of skills across a variety of fields, types and levels that the continent needs to support its rapidly growing economies.
Tertiary systems around the world have becomes less diverse and differentiated in recent decades, studies have shown. And despite a desire among many states to increase diversity within higher education, a combination of “strict and uniform government policies” and the ability of powerful academic communities to defend their norms and values, are largely to blame for growing homogenisation. This is bad news for higher education, said comparative education professor Frans van Vught of the University of Twente in The Netherlands.
The expansion of higher education in Africa has not been accompanied by differentiation resulting, broadly speaking, in more of the same rather than greater diversity in types of institutions and learning, according to University of Nairobi professor Njuguna Ng’ethe. Countries need to tackle this problem if higher education systems are to improve access and produce the variety of skills that economies need.
Increased competition between universities and the ‘reputation race’ has not led to greater diversity, as many governments hoped. But it is creating hierarchical differentiation based on inequalities in higher education systems, according to Professor Frans van Vught of Holland’s University of Twente. Market forces have resulted in a huge increase in the costs of higher education with serious consequences for students and for universities.
Higher education worldwide is transforming in ways that could increase differentiation, contends the University of Oslo’s Professor Peter Maassen. Traditional distinctions – between universities and colleges, academic and professional, rural and urban – are being replaced by sets of indicators and standards used by governments and agencies to steer tertiary systems. Impending higher education reforms in Norway are likely to opt for a model that stresses differentiation within rather than between institutions.
Across Africa, growing numbers of young people are finishing school but there has not been a corresponding increase in university students: fewer than 4% of young Africans enter higher education. In South Africa, expanding further education and training is seen as a way to open access to post-school education, raise student numbers, plug a skills gap – and improve diversity in the tertiary system. The plan is to enrol a million further education students by 2014, said Penny Vinjevold, a deputy director in the Department of Education.
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’.
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.
South Africa’s six ‘new generation’ universities, charged with straddling the binary divide, are battling to find strategic identities and to preserve their purpose. For these ‘comprehensive’ universities, a good place to start thinking about programme differentiation could be at the end – they need to ask “What kind of knowledgeable, qualified person is each programme trying to produce?” – said Professor Joe Muller, director of the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School in Humanities. Hard choices will need to be made, to create institutional niches on the basis of intellectual competency.
In South Africa, differentiation in higher education is seen as a way of tackling challenges such as skills shortages and the needs for competitiveness, improved access and equity. The country is aiming for institutional diversity and programme differentiation through state steering, said Dr Nico Cloete, director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation. The government will set enrolment, performance and programme targets for the higher education sector based on national goals, and for universities based on their capacity.
Performance indicators for South African universities have been developed by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation and they are starting to be used to inform government decisions about the higher education system and individual institutions, said Dr Ian Bunting of the national Department of Education. The indicators will be used to set different targets for universities – encouraging diversity in the sector – as well as to measure the performance of institutions over time and to hold them accountable.