Higher education summit endorses stakeholder forum

South Africa's higher education summit agreed on Friday to create a stakeholder forum to improve communication in the sector. It vowed to seek redress funding for disadvantaged universities, revitalise the academic profession, improve working conditions and student-centredness, strengthen postgraduate studies and research, and take forward an institutional differentiation framework developed at the meeting.

Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande, who called the summit in an effort to forge agreement among often-divided constituencies on how to transform universities, said the sector had not met in this form since democracy was achieved in 1994.

"It's been a huge exercise in self-reflection of what has gone on in higher education in the past 16 years," he said when presenting the summit declaration. "We have not explored all dimensions but this has been an important opportunity to reflect on critical developments."

"Transformation is a continuing and long-term process. We have laid the basis for progress."

Other agreements reached were to convene annual summits to review progress, develop a charter on learning and teaching, orient curricula towards social relevance, ensure good governance, produce a framework for student leadership development, improve opportunities for young black academics, and develop African languages as academic languages.

The summit endorsed academic freedom and institutional autonomy as "necessary freedoms" that enable universities to tackle South Africa's imperatives and challenges. It recognised duties and responsibilities that accompany these freedoms, including commitment to "transform universities so that they become more equitable, inclusive and just".

A major achievement, Nzimande said, was agreement on the stakeholder council, which would improve sector communication and could impact positively on institutions.

The summit had also accepted the main findings of a ministerial committee that in 2008 investigated transformation and discrimination in universities, led by University of Cape Town education professor Crain Soudien. It found racism and sexism to be pervasive.

"The challenge remains to continue to confront transformation in all its forms," Nzimandi declared. A ministerial oversight committee was being established to support self-monitoring universities to transform.

He said the Soudien Report and his visits to universities had made it clear that improvements could quite easily be made to overcome some problems encountered by students. "We need to create institutions that care about students from the time the letter of application arrives until a student graduates.

Nzimande flagged the creation of a higher education academy. "We don't just need it for students but for the system as a whole." High-flying professors appointed to leadership positions often had very little managerial experience. "I welcome that students recognise they might have been too preoccupied by governance, at the expense of academic issues."

Another achievement had been on the issue of differentiation, which is facilitated in South Africa by three types of institutions - research universities, comprehensive universities that combine academic and career-oriented provision, and universities of technology.

But policy does not support institutional diversity, universities do not respond fully to regional needs, and scarce funds are not invested in ways that enhance the development of all universities.

The summit agreed on the need to construct a framework for universities that were differentiated in relation to their strengths and purposes, linked to local and regional economic networks, and which facilitated the portability of students, academics and knowledge across the sector.

"We have taken the differentiation debate further. We have undertaken to review the funding model. It is clear that a necessary component of that exercise must be based on a particular model of differentiation," said Nzimande. "But although universities must be differentiated they must also be part of the national system and respond to national needs."

"We must bite the bullet on differentiation, and the sooner we do it the better."

The declaration said universities had embraced the opportunity to reposition the sector in a reconfigured post-school system. It reaffirmed the principles of the 1997 White Paper on Higher Education - equity and redress, democratisation, development, quality, effectiveness and efficiency, academic freedom, institutional autonomy and public accountability.

Among the challenges identified was the need to sustain engaged universities that were fit for the purposes of transformation and development and in particular responded to regional socio-economic needs and human resource development.

The sector worried about "pressures of commodification and commercialisation in higher education, which have privileged business efficiencies over academic concerns", factors impacting on quality, and the "poor conditions under which many students learn and live".

Other challenges were to build a vibrant research system that responded to the needs of industry and social reconstruction, produce socially responsible graduates who contributed to development and social transformation, deepen democratic processes in higher education, and increase access to and articulation within the post-school system, especially for the poor.

"We knew that calling this conference was a huge risk, for a number of reasons," Nzimande said. "We didn't know how the sector would respond, as issues on the agenda were controversial and go to the heart of the university system.

"Stakeholders see issues differently and there was the potential for conflict. The risk we took was to bring people with widely diverging idea to seek common agreements."

The department would study in detail all that had come out of the summit, and all inputs would be made accessible on the websites of the department and the Centre for Education Policy Development, which helped organise the summit.

"I urge you to report back to constituencies and institutions. We will play a leadership role as government, but institutions must implement their commitments too.

"Let's not drop the ball now," Nzimande concluded.

Key recommendations

1- Establish a permanent Stakeholder Forum. The department must lead a broad consultative process immediately after the summit to define the role and functions of this forum and a process for it to be established
2- Convene an annual summit to review progress in the sector (the sector being accountable to itself). Annual summits should keep institutional progress in relation to the recommendations of the Soudien Report on the agenda
3- A working group should be urgently convened to take forward the framework for institutional differentiation developed in the Summit and develop recommendations in consultation with the sector
4- Develop mechanisms to promote student-centeredness and caring universities.
5- Develop a charter on learning and teaching.
6- Seek a focused recapitalisation of historically disadvantaged universities.
7- Strengthen emphasis on postgraduate studies and research.
8- Revitalise the academic profession including the development a coordinated plan to increase the number of younger researchers.
9- Ensure stronger intra-institutional capacity-building and knowledge-sharing in order to foster inter-institutional sectoral solidarity and collaboration
10- Ensure commitment to good corporate governance.
11- Address the decent work requirements of academics and support staff.
12- Draft a national framework for development of student leadership.
13- Develop programmes aimed at improving opportunities for young African academics particularly women.
14- Universities must contribute to the development of African languages as academic languages, understanding the role language development plays in development and education. This includes the development of African language-based postgraduate outputs across disciplinary areas.
15- A curriculum oriented toward social relevance and which supports students to become socially engaged citizens and leaders.

The South African' Higher Education Summit would probably be the first of its kind if it could disseminate and share the information and agreements reached with other nations - from underdeveloped to developed. A universal understanding would be an advantage to all because we can not just be focused on national interest since the world is, as the saying goes, shrinking. A universal standard could be forged in running educational systems so that intra-educational and cultural differentiations could be minimised and knowledge and technology exchanges facilitated. I am particularly referring to recommendations 5 and 9 which could be the founding bases for such an international endeavor. The next summit could be the avenue for an expanded participation to include participants from other nations. This could lead to the development of minimum educational standards which could bridge the separation between educational institutions in the world.

Leodegardo M. Pruna