SOUTH AFRICA: University collaboration in the Cape

For years South African higher education institutions have worked on a variety of initiatives to promote regional collaboration, but many have failed. The Cape Higher Education Consortium, or CHEC, which was launched under a different name and guise in 1993 in response to severe budget constraints during the collapse of the apartheid state, is one of the few really successful university collaboration initiatives.

The consortium assists and expands cooperation between universities in Western Cape province. It continues to flourish and is now expanding its reach to include regional development.

"We've begun to place higher education on the regional map and the regional agenda," Nasima Badsha, chief executive officer of CHEC and a former top education official, told University World News.

CHEC facilitates academic, research and technological collaboration between the University of Cape Town (UCT), University of Stellenbosch, University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), the four major tertiary education institutions in the Western Cape.

It began in 1993 as the Western Cape Tertiary Institutions Trust, but changed its name in 2002 to CHEC when its member institutions signed a vision statement adopting a more systematic approach to regional collaboration. The aim of the consortium is to share resources, pool expertise and cut costs in a number of different areas.

"There is an informed need to look for efficiency gains, and I think that while budgets have improved, universities will continue to look at ways to become more efficient and more cost-effective," Badsha said.

The programme currently runs four active projects that directly benefit the constituent institutions - the Cape Library Consortium (CALICO), a shared library information system; HERS-SA, a network dedicated to improving the status of women in higher education; the Publishing Liaison Office (PLO), a copyright clearance centre; and the Scientific and Industrial Leadership Initiative (SAILI), to promote improvement in mathematics and science education in disadvantaged schools.

Historically, all the key regions in South Africa had similar consortia but not all have survived. FOTIM, which links tertiary institutions in Gauteng, Limpopo and Northwest provinces, follows a similar blueprint to CHEC, but its large geographical breadth hinders its efficiency.

The new policy and legislative framework constructed by South Africa's new government following democratic elections in 1994 resulted in a loss of impetus for a number of regional consortia. "Many of the regional consortia weren't established with any statutory functions," said Badsha. "And when that impetus was lost, a lot of drive for it was lost in turn."

But CHEC managed to stay on course.

One of the key reasons for its longevity and success is its compact geographical location. All the member institutions are within an easy 40-minute drive from each other, allowing for effective resource sharing, regular board meetings and in-person collaboration.

"There's always been a shared commitment to cooperation and collaboration," said Anthony Staak, current chair of the CHEC board and Deputy Vice-chancellor at CPUT, the only university of technology among the four, focused mainly on vocational and professional studies. "From the level of the vice-chancellors, there is the belief that four universities working together can achieve much more than if they were working alone."

This easy sense of cooperation is helped along by mechanisms put in place for resolving disputes and managing conflict. The vision statement guides the member institutions with principles that ought to govern their behaviour towards each other. Another mechanism is the meeting of vice-chancellors that provides a platform for arguments to be raised. If there is a need to go to mediation, CHEC will do so by appointing a panel of 'wise persons' who are experts in the higher education field - but there has as yet been no need to resort to this.

CHEC has now moved beyond infrastructural projects and is promoting regional development. The consortium has begun to develop partnerships with city and provincial government officials, and is also slowly developing relationships with businesses in the region. It also runs an ongoing regional management development programme, which provides training opportunities for middle managers at all four of the member institutions.

"Our universities are national institutions and so historically they haven't featured on the regional agenda," said Badsha. "That's why it is important that consortia like ours look at where we can best impact on regional development."

But, like any collaborative exercise, there are obstacles to overcome.

The institutions are partners in the consortium but they are also competitors, so the challenge lies in constantly balancing this dynamic. And sometimes those at the lower level who are implementing the projects don't recognise the benefits of collaboration.

"The challenge is to constantly ensure that the same ideals shared by the vice-chancellors are shared throughout our individual institutions," said Staak.

Now CHEC is benefiting from foreign expertise. Badsha just returned from a study visit to the UK and Spain, countries that have a long history of collaboration and engagement. The trip was designed for Badhsa and her colleagues to look at models of best practice in the area of higher education and regional development partnerships.

Provincial government officials from the Western Cape accompanied Badsha on the Barcelona leg, which she said was especially helpful. "We were able to refract what we learned from the perspective of provincial and governmental colleagues," said Badsha. She is busy writing up her experiences, teasing out the lessons and trying to figure out how the UK and Spanish models could best be applied efficiently to the model at home.

The South African education system still faces many challenges, among them budget constraints, low levels of literacy and discrepancies between urban and rural schools. Despite these realities, Badsha remains positive and said that after many difficult years of restructuring, the country's education system is finally starting to establish itself.

"Our system confronts challenges that university systems across the continent and the world also confront, and that we'll continue to confront," said Badsha. "But we now have the basis of a solid system in place."