SOUTH AFRICA: Universities call for funding change

South Africa's vice-chancellors are to call for a differentiated funding formula aimed at strengthening the ability of universities to deliver on their individual missions and at easing a funding 'bias' towards research. The university leaders achieved consensus - often a difficult task, given vast institutional differences - at their annual meeting in Pretoria.

"We agreed that the funding formula must be revised so that there is a fair distribution of resources to universities according to their missions," Dr Duma Malaza, CEO of the vice-chancellors' association Higher Education South Africa (HESA) told University World News after the 28 July gathering.

"We need a new differentiated funding system so that universities can find their niches, and to improve the overall efficiency of the higher education sector and its ability to contribute to economic growth and development."

The current funding formula does differentiate between universities. However, said Professor Irene Moutlana, Deputy Chair of HESA and Vice-chancellor of Vaal University of Technology, it does so in ways that are not fair to all institutions.

"The funding system emphasises research at the expense of more teaching-oriented universities. We want all aspects of higher education to be valued as contributing to national development. There are different roles for different institutions informed by their cultures, location, mission and the labour market."

Another major issue on the vice-chancellors' agenda was South Africa's new-look post-school system. Following the 2009 elections, President Jacob Zuma created a Department of Higher Education and Training that pulls universities, further education and training (FET) colleges and sector education and training authorities into a single post-school system.

"The role of higher education within the system and how the sectors articulate are big challenges that we are engaged with," said Malaza. "The post-school system is still very unformed and we want to contribute to shaping it."

Underlying major restructuring of the post-school system is the issue of access. The college sector is expected to expand hugely and rapidly to move South Africa away from the inverted pyramid of far more students in universities than in further education, and to get many more school-leavers into further education and training.

Irene Moutlana told University World News that the post-school system faced a two-pronged challenge. "The government wants more skilled graduates, but many graduates are unemployed. Also, millions of young people cannot access post-school learning. If we can get more students through FET colleges than are currently learning through universities, this will help access and improve the skills base of South Africa."

There is no chance of the college sector meeting the government's goal of enrolling a million students by 2014 - against the 800,000 or so students currently in universities - as the sector simply does not have the capacity. There is pressure on universities to assist in strengthening the FET sector, quickly, and to improve access to higher education from colleges.

"We are developing an advocacy position to inform the government," Malaza said. "We want to contribute to the green paper being drafted, which will result in policy on the shape and size of the post-school system.

"We are arguing for growth of FET but not neglect of higher education. And we are looking at how higher education can contribute, for example by helping to improve the governance and management of colleges, training college lecturers and improving the curriculum.

"The FET sector must be improved, and expansion of participation in post-school education must be in colleges. This will ease the burden of demand on universities. But currently the response time is too slow," Malaza explained.

Another problem, said Moutlana, is the preferences of students and families, who widely believe that university gives better returns on investment. "We have to reshape perceptions of the benefits of higher education. Strategic skills are needed, and people must start to see colleges as viable. Big investments are needed to make this possible."

The restructuring of higher education a decade ago saw multiple institutional mergers and the elevation of technikons (polytechnics) to university status, with 23 'traditional' universities, 'comprehensive' universities and universities of technology emerging from the previous 36 universities and technikons.

HESA was formed out of two rectors' associations that had represented universities and technikons and, for the first time, higher education was able to speak with one voice. But this has not been easy, because of continuing substantial differences between institutions that range from top urban research universities to small rural teaching-oriented universities.

Universities of technology have since formed a separate lobby group, and a couple of research universities appear to be 'going it alone'.

Also, while higher education has been combined with skills, the direction and funding of research in universities falls under the Department of Science and Technology. Most of this funding goes to seven or so research universities, which are also best placed to earn third stream income, placing them ever-further ahead in resources than teaching universities.

Still, said Malaza, HESA is representing higher education strongly through regular engagement with the Department of Higher Education and Training at the CEO-director-general level and with the parliamentary committee on education, and through themed strategic groups that engage on a range of issues and inform the government.

"There is room for improvement. Institutions handle issues differently. HESA can't always speak with one voice. But we do reach agreement on important issues and it is crucial that we articulate our stance very clearly, if we are to achieve a streamlined post-school system that is efficient and effective and also sustainable."