SOUTH AFRICA: Radical new plan for higher education

Hidden in the text of the education section of South Africa's new National Development Plan is an intention that is much more radical than any previous higher education policy. While previously higher education was regarded as an equity instrument, now for the first time it is acknowledged as a major development driver in the information-knowledge system. Knowledge production and equity are linked within a more differentiated system. Two major policy goals are to double the participation rate and expand private higher education.


The National Planning Commission's proposals for higher education in South Africa must be seen against a lineage of policy initiatives, from the National Education Policy Initiative (NEPI) in 1991, the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) in 1996 and the Department of Education's white paper in 1997 and its National Plan in 2001, to former minister Kader Asmal's mergers of 2003.

All these documents 'struggled' with the same basic policy issues: equity, efficiency, democratic participation and development.

In each of the documents, the four central elements of higher education policy worldwide were addressed in different ways and with different emphases. But the dominant policy conundrum, brought back from exile by anti-apartheid intellectual Harold Wolpe around 1990, is the tension (trade-off) between equity and development.

NEPI stated the tension eloquently but, in its democratic participative mode, could not resolve it and argued for both - without explaining how that would be possible or what the trade-offs would be.

The NCHE, top-loaded with representatives from historically disadvantaged institutions, was always going to lean towards equity and democracy (participation). But the NCHE did make a radical proposal, namely massification. However, it conceptualised massification rather naively as increased access, and ducked the political hot potato that characterises all massified systems, namely differentiation.

The NCHE report was vulnerable to counter-arguments that massification would take South Africa down the 'African road' of poor quality massified systems. (In reality, no African country except Mauritius has a massified higher education system, in other countries there are only overcrowded elite systems).

The white paper, coming from government, not surprisingly put the emphasis on governance and equity, and translated massification into 'planned expansion' - which contributed to the current low participation rate crisis.

Although the Department of Education's National Plan of 2001 was meant to be the implementation plan of the white paper, it leaned much more heavily towards efficiency, responding to the dominant economic agenda of the Growth Employment and Redistribution policy of 1996 which was being implemented by Trevor Manuel, then minister of finance and now minister of planning.

The institutional mergers of 2003 were persuasively sold by then education minister Asmal as an attempt to restructure the apartheid higher education landscape. However, the mergers were strongly underpinned by the inconsistent application of equity and efficiency policy assumptions. (Some of the inconsistency was brought about by the political bargaining power, or not, of specific institutions.)

The new National Development Plan

The National Planning Commission (NPC) proposals published on 11 November, National Development Plan: Vision for 2030, arrives amid the recently initiated Ministerial Committee for the Review of the Funding of Universities, ministerial statements (plans) from the Department of Higher Education and Training and the Department of Science and Technology, a flurry of debate about differentiation among vice-chancellors through their association Higher Education South Africa, and a World Bank review of the skills gap in South Africa (in press).

I thought I would do a brief 'readers guide' through the 500+ page National Development Plan and then comment on the salient points of the higher education section. But this proved to be impossible. So we posted on the website of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation the overall vision statement, the whole chapter on education and the commissioned higher education report by Nasima Badsha and myself.

It was also not possible to produce a guide through the higher education section (roughly pages 267 to 294) because mixed into this section is vision, achievement, description, diagnosis, prescription, targets (for the whole education system), funding, support and a sequencing of proposals for the whole system.

A way to make sense of the higher education section is to reread the whole section a few times and make notes of what is actually 'hidden' in the text. Then it becomes evident that there is a much more coherent approach to higher education than what the disconnected mosaic of discrete paragraphs suggest, and that the underpinning policy intention is much more radical than any previous higher education policy text in South Africa.

The plan's overview starts with reference to the Reconstruction and Development Plan of 1994, the year democracy was achieved, as the government's previous basis for attacking 'poverty and deprivation'. It then positions the new vision in light of the Diagnostic Report of June 2011, which "sets out South Africa's achievements and shortcomings since 1994".

Since higher education is not mentioned in the Diagnostic Report, it could be assumed that higher education was neither an achievement nor a shortcoming, or perhaps just not worth mentioning. Not regarding higher education as important in development is not new in South Africa, but the new National Development Plan certainly redresses this omission.

The overall central policy intention of the plan is "creating a virtuous cycle of growth and development..and reducing poverty and inequality". It states further that "in this new story our nation's energies are focused both on attacking poverty and on expanding a robust, entrepreneurial and innovative economy" - new words for equity (poverty) and development (enterprise and innovation).

The centre piece at the beginning of the higher education section states that:

"Higher education is the major driver of the information-knowledge system, linking it with economic development...Universities are key to developing a nation. They play three main functions in society. Firstly, they educate and train people with high-level skills for the employment needs of the public and private sectors.

"Secondly, universities are the dominant producers of new knowledge, and they critique information and find new local and global applications for existing knowledge. Universities also set norms and standards, determine the curriculum, languages and knowledge, ethics and philosophy underpinning a nation's knowledge-capital. South Africa needs knowledge that equips people for a society in constant social change.

"Thirdly, given the country's apartheid history, higher education provides opportunities for social mobility and simultaneously strengthens equity, social justice and democracy. In today's knowledge society, higher education underpinned by a strong science and technology innovation system is increasingly important in opening up people's opportunities."

While not mentioned in the Diagnostic Report, higher education is now a major development driver in the information-knowledge system.

In all previous higher education policy documents in South Africa higher education was explicitly, or implicitly, regarded as an equity instrument, providing access and social mobility. Now for the first time equity is listed last among three main functions.

But, more importantly, for the first time knowledge production and equity are linked by stating that "high quality knowledge production cannot be fully realised with a low student participation rate" (p274).

The radical nature of this shift is the acknowledgment that higher education is key for development, both in terms of equity and knowledge. Then it finally bites the bullet by saying that you can only have equity, or social justice, and high-level knowledge production within a differentiated system.

Starting with equity, which is finally talked about in terms of participation rates and not access for the disadvantaged, in the current elite higher education system (17%) participation rates cannot significantly improve for the previously disadvantaged.

Although more than 66% of the students in the university system are black, compared to just over 30% in 1990, this only translates into a participation rate of 13% for African and coloured students against close to 60% for whites. Even if all the students in the current university system were black, the participation rate for black people would still be well below 30%.

The NPC plan recommends that the participation rate be increased to over 30% and that enrolments in higher education, including private higher education, be increased from 950,000 in 2010 to more than 1.62 million in 2030, a 70% increase.

Hidden in this increased participation rate is a second major policy shift, namely the increased contribution of private higher education. For this, the legal environment must become more 'enabling' and consideration should be given to allowing students from not-for-profit private institutions to qualify for National Student Financial Aid Scheme assistance.

In other words, there are two major policy shifts: double the participation rate and encourage and expand private higher education.

Closely linked to increasing the participation rate in higher education is a tripling, from 300,000 to 1.25 million, of enrolments in the further education and training (FET) sector, "to respond to the high unmet demand for learning opportunities".

This is another radical departure from previous policy documents, namely, the intention to create a system that finally connects the entire education system, and particularly post-school to an expanded notion of higher education (currently higher education is only a university system).

Unfortunately, it does not make clear whether post-school is post-secondary (post-matric) or simply 'out of school' (everybody from grade 10 up). This is a crucial omission because it leaves the FET sector with its current confused identity. Is it a 'second chance' school system, a vocational school system or a US-style community college system? And confused identity never leads to strong institutions. (An excuse for the NPC is that the commissioned paper on FET suffers from the same confusion.)

Enthusiastic about knowledge production

The NPC is so enthusiastic about knowledge that it declares that "knowledge production is the rationale of higher education" (p271) - indeed a radical departure from the traditional 'rationale' of higher education in Africa, that is, disseminating (teaching) knowledge from somewhere else.

It starts by saying that the World Bank characterises South Africa as a mid-level performer in knowledge production; that globally, while South Africa is the dominant producer in Africa, Africa's global proportion of publication output is declining; that the South African science and innovation system is, in comparison to its population, small by international standards; and that South Africa produces only 28 PhD graduates per million people in comparison to, say, South Korea (187) and Brazil (48). The University of Sao Paulo alone produces almost twice as many PhDs per year as all 23 South African universities.

There are five significant shifts in the approach to knowledge production.

Firstly, the notion of knowledge production consists of a combination of PhD education and research output. Traditionally these two interlinked aspects were separated into teaching and research. The NPC has taken seriously the research by CHET that shows a correlation of more than 0.80 between having a PhD and publishing in an ISI approved journal.

Secondly, the NPC poses a target of tripling the number of doctoral gradates from 1,420 to 5,000 per annum, and increasing the proportion of academic staff with PhDs from 34% to 75%. Thirdly, a number of world-class centres and programmes should be developed within the national system of innovation and the higher education sector.

Fourthly, a new future scholars programme needs to be developed, both to increase the proportion of staff with PhDs and to meet the increasing demand for professional PhDs in the non-university research, financial and services sectors.

Fifthly, the role of science councils should be reviewed in light of the world-wide tendency to align, or merge, research councils with universities. And indirectly related to knowledge production is the revitalisation of science- and mathematics-based subjects through a tripling of eligible school leavers.

Differentiation is tackled by stating that:

"South Africa needs to strengthen research excellence through performance-based grants. More weight should be given to building departments, and centres or networks of excellence. Given that performance-based grants can entrench historical privilege and disadvantage, capacity-building grants should be provided with clear targets for improvement in five-year intervals.

" differentiation requires that all higher education institutions provide high quality education and skills training, underpinned by common standards for student facilities, libraries, laboratories, computer access and staff qualifications. Adequate resourcing will be needed to enable historically disadvantaged institutions to achieve these standards and overcome historical backlogs." (p291)

This rather historic policy statement is very bold in stating that research excellence will be performance-based, privileging the high knowledge-producing institutions, but also acknowledges the need for capacity-building. It also suggests a distinction between high quality education and training skills on the one hand, and knowledge production on the other.

It deals with the worldwide policy debate about the concentration of resources by proposing world-class centres and programmes across institutions.

The NPC proposal also advises the Ministerial Committee for the Review of the Funding of Universities that such revisions should be based on the needs of a differentiated system with adequate provision for both teaching and research.

The document correctly proposes that for a differentiated system to work requires flexible pathways for student mobility between institutions; that the Higher Education Quality Committee should finally start developing a core set of quality indicators for the whole system; and that a differentiated system should be:

"...guided by evidence-based planning and performance monitoring which will require maintaining and strengthening the current Higher Education Management Information System and the additional capacity to analyse national trends and changes between and among institutions and institutional groups." (p282)


In terms of implementation, the NPC report suggests that differentiation could be implemented through institutions and the government reaching agreements about a planning model that builds on and strengthens the current enrolment planning approach.

In addition, implementation would involve targets for enrolments and graduates covering a range of skills, from high-level research training at doctoral level, to shorter-term career-focused diplomas and certificates. It further suggests that decisions will need to be taken about which type of institution contributes most effectively to which skill level.

This approach seems to be leaning towards 'institutional profile contracts' between government and universities, an approach used increasingly widely in a number of countries around the world. What the NPC does not stress enough, though, is that such a system requires high planning capacity in the national department - something we do not have.

Student success

In contrast to preceding policy documents, efficiency receives scant attention in the NPC vision. This despite the fact that at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, fewer than 50% of students graduate. Apart from pointing out that an increase in the throughput rate could double the number of graduates by 2030, and making some vague comments about enabling environments and support for teaching, no 'radical' proposals are made.

But then, in one sentence in the differentiation section many pages further on, the NPC makes a recommendation that could have very far-reaching implications for the higher education system:

"...greater emphasis should be placed on incentivising graduate output. Such a shift would be in line with the international trend towards greater emphasis on output-based funding. The higher education department would have to put measures in place to ensure that the risk of this approach discouraging universities from taking students from deprived backgrounds is reduced."(p292)

The South African higher education system has, for years, operated a 'win-win' situation. Universities admit students who they say are not adequately prepared for higher education. At least 50% of these students fail. But universities take the subsidy (more than 80% of the total government allocation) and blame the school system for the failure. In other words, they keep the money and displace the blame.

This does not only operate at undergraduate level. In a longitudinal study of masters and PhD students, CHET came across an institution that had enrolled 1,930 masters students and two years later 1,157 had dropped out, but the institution pocketed the enrolment subsidy of R12.3 million rand (direct teaching input).

While graduate funding cannot be introduced all at once, the ministerial committee will have to look at systems like that in Norway, where government funds credits passed in a 40 input- 60 output proportion, and other Nordic countries which only fund graduates. It may be more appropriate to implement such a funding system by starting immediately at the postgraduate level.


The targets put in the NPC plan must be seen as indicative of a direction; without any explanatory text about assumptions underpinning the 'intentions', it does appear to be a thumb suck.

The 30% participation rate for example is quite attainable if it refers only to the higher education (university) sector. However if it also includes post-secondary education then it is too low. New calculations by CHET show that South Africa is already at over 20% and comparative countries such as Brazil, which has already achieved a 35% participation rate, will be over 50% by 2030.

Similarly, in a differentiated system should all universities have 75% of their academics with a PhD, or should high knowledge-producing institutions have nearly 100%, as is the case with Sao Paolo? Even at the top-ranked University of Cape Town, the proportion of academics with a PhD is barely at 60%.

The targets should also be seen in the context of proposed five-year 'plans' and reviews. A new, and much-needed, dynamic will be added by bringing the presidency into a triangle with the current rather cosy enrolment planning negotiations between the higher education ministry and the university sector.

These targets will also enable the presidency to give more substance to the so-called ministerial performance contracts, which currently are little more than thumb sucks, sometimes without the ministers even consulting their departments.

And presumably these contracts will be within the framework of the proposed 'pacts' about performance and responsibility. Currently the National Development Plan elaborates components of the pact only for the schooling system. It is very important that the same be done for the higher education system.

In conclusion, what is perhaps most radical about the NPC vision is that it envisages a 'normal' massified, differentiated system that, like most systems in the developed world, includes ongoing debates and reforms around the emphases and trade-offs between knowledge production, skills training, efficiency and equity.

What will be missing are two things.

The one is what Simon Swartzman from Brazil, quoted in the higher education commissioned paper, describes as a misguided notion of equality:

"The tendency of higher education institutions to raise their status by imitating the curricula and organisational models of their more prestigious counterparts, thereby reducing diversity within educational systems...but instead of becoming more egalitarian, the sector becomes increasingly more stratified, hierarchical and inefficient, all in the name of equality." (2011)

The second aspect of the vision seems to suggest the end of the rhetorical 'radical' term 'transformation'. In our commissioned paper the term is not used once, and in the NPC education chapter it is used only three times.

In the first instance it is used as part of a list of issues that face us: transformation, violence, corruption and service delivery. In the other two instances, it refers to race and gender equity - for which transformation has become a code word.

By 2030 we will most probably have other code words, but among them will not be transformation!

* Professor Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation. He is also extraordinary professor of higher education and the University of the Western Cape, visiting professor of the Erasmus Mundus masters programme in higher education at the University of Oslo, and honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town.