SOUTH AFRICA: OECD urges university funding changes

A just-published review by the OECD of South African education has praised "impressive forward thinking" and reform post-apartheid, but has also called for improved management of change in higher education and a reappraisal of university funding. It suggests studies into factors affecting student performance in the face of high drop-out rates, a proactive approach to preparing and integrating new students, and pedagogical training for junior academics.

Reviews of National Policies for Education - South Africa* also advises comprehensive universities to specialise by focusing on particular 'knowledge niches'. There are six comprehensive institutions, most created out of university-polytechnic mergers, that offer formative and vocational programmes but which have been battling to forge coherent identities.

The South African review was published last week by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. South Africa is not a member of the OECD but is one of five countries offered 'enhanced engagement' with it. The others are Brazil, China, India and Indonesia.

Higher education is one facet of an education review undertaken by a team, working with the OECD Directorate for Education, comprising academics and experts from Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy, Mozambique, New Zealand and The Netherlands. A background report was prepared by the Education Policy Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, assisted by the South African Department of Education.

In the foreword, OECD Director for Education Barbara Ischinger writes that, "Since democracy in 1994, impressive progress has been made in education legislation, policy development, curriculum reform and the implementation of new ways of delivering education, but many challenges remain in many areas, such as student outcomes and labour market relevance."

Higher education, the review points out, has undergone major restructuring and the effects are still being felt. There are new organisational arrangements, quality assurance and financing processes, and new relationships between the state and institutions -which the report describes in some detail.

South Africa, it continues, wants universities to provide the quality of teaching and research and the disciplines required for socio-economic development in a competitive globalised world. "The government also seeks to achieve equity in higher education provision and a tension exists regarding the simultaneous achievement of these goals."

There have been successes. For instance, South Africa's gross enrolment ratio grew from 13% of 20 to 24-year olds in 2000 to 16% in 2006 and the target is 20% over the next five years. In terms of equity, by 2006 three in five of nearly 750,000 students were black African and only a quarter were white - a reversal of the proportions under apartheid - while 14% were Indian or mixed race. Also, 55% of students were women.

At the same time, only one in 10 South Africans had a tertiary qualification in 2006 and poor success rates and patterns in higher education mean it is not producing the sufficient numbers or types of graduates the economy needs. The country faces challenges in terms of higher education participation rates, success rates, outputs in terms of fields of study and qualification levels, equity, quality, funding, and the capacity to meet transformation goals.

In its recommendations for higher education, the review team says it "does not question the value, opportunity and timeliness of the ongoing restructuring in higher education", given South Africa's apartheid legacy and the needs to make the sector "more accessible, equitable, integrated, rational and manageable". Among other things, restructuring entailed mergers and the slashing of public institution numbers from 36 to 23 universities, some of which are very large.

But concern is expressed about the underlying idea the benefits of mergers would be greater than the costs to the sector, institutions and stakeholders. Indeed, the review says, "one important lesson to be learned from this process is that the human (subjective) material and financial (objective) conditions needed to bring about the planned change - including the capacity to manage change, overcome change resistance and cope with the unintended and unexpected consequences of the process - were seriously underestimated".

More attention should be paid to detailed planning, budgeting and monitoring of change, especially at the institutional level, the report proposes.

Second, the review team points out, most comprehensive universities "are now facing enormous challenges and are in a state of disarray". It suggests these dual university and polytechnic-style institutions will have to make a difficult but necessary choice: either to become 'specialised' by identifying one particular 'knowledge niche', or to become many different institutions simultaneously and, as a result, face the risk of collapsing.

Third, given patterns of enrolment and low graduation rates - especially in mathematics, science and technology - higher education is far from producing the "high quality human capital needed to propel and sustain" social and economic development. The review calls for in-depth studies to provide better understanding of the ways external and institutional factors affect student performance.

Fourth, the review suggests a more proactive and long-term approach to the academic preparation and social integration of first year undergraduate students given their diverse backgrounds and declines in university-level passes and standards in the school system.

Strategies to deal with poorly-prepared students and to ease their transition to university should include: foundation courses to bridge knowledge gaps, curriculum extension to allow some students more time to complete their studies, and co-curricula and academic literacy programmes to develop competencies and skills.

Since there are such programmes at some universities, "the time has come to systematise existing experience, distil good practices and turn them into regular components of teaching and learning in higher education", the report states.

Fifth, many universities had tried hard to change the demographic (especially racial) profile of their academic staff, resulting in growing numbers of junior lecturers with little or no formal training in the pedagogy of higher education. The review strongly recommended that the Education Department work with (particularly historically disadvantaged) universities to offer training for academics on a regular basis, as well as use of senior staff as mentors.

Finally, the review raised "critical conceptual and practical issues" with South Africa's new higher education funding framework. They include lack of funding for residences and experiential learning, lack of subsidies to maintain new buildings, the need for incentives to grow research and teaching productivity, and subsidies to universities that are based on the demographic composition of student bodies rather than cost.

In view of these and other biases, the OECD review says some observers had suggested that the new funding formula, along with the deregulation of higher education and promotion of market relations, had contributed to the creation of a new, differentiated but also more unequal institutional landscape in South Africa

Link to Reviews of National Policies for Education - South Africa