On different pages in the differentiation debate

Research in South Africa over the past eight years has clustered universities into groups based on performance indicators. It has made visible long-term stability and shorter-term dynamism in the higher education system, and contributed to the debate on differentiation.

The Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) has been a vigorous proponent and sponsor of the ‘differentiation debate’ in South African higher education. The latest instalment was a seminar held on 24 January 2013 in Cape Town.

CHET’s signal contribution to the debate has been to construct a set of performance indicators, initially based largely on research and research-related indicators, which made visible for the first time a distribution of the country’s universities, revealing distinct clusters of institutions.

This clustering was similar to one produced by Professor Johann Mouton, director of the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at Stellenbosch University, and also to one used by the Department of Higher Education and Training’s (DHET) research output panel.

The first great virtue of clustering universities has been to show the stability of the clusters over time. The second virtue, paradoxically, has been to make visible dynamism in the clusters, showing where individual institutions are moving up or down, or moving into the group above or dropping into the one below.

Understandably, institutions not in the ‘top’ cluster took the analysis to be pointing to their weaknesses that, as they were quick to stress, were not entirely of their own making. Useful as it was, a clustering of this kind was always going to be associated with a ranking, and with the problems of rankings generally.

For last month’s seminar, CHET produced a broader set of indicators and attached them to institutions placed in pre-allocated categories of ‘universities’, ‘comprehensives’ and ‘universities of technology’. These indicators were:
  • • Undergraduate and postgraduate enrolment numbers.
  • • Number of academic staff by rank.
  • • Number of permanent academic staff with PhDs.
  • • Number of research publications.
  • • Number of PhD enrolments and graduates.
Revisiting differentiation

In his presentation Ian Bunting, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town, revisited the way that ‘differentiation’ has been dealt with over the years, from its first mention in the White Paper of 1997 to the Green Paper of 2012.

The White Paper made two crucial moves.

The first was to provide two key rationales for differentiation. The first was a resource constraint rationale; that an undifferentiated system – where all institutions try to offer all things – was not affordable. The second rationale was to promote equity and development.

While the second has remained prominent, with the emphasis gradually moving from equity to development, the first has been lost sight of and should be retrieved, according to CHET.

The second move was to define the unit of differentiation as the programme rather than the institution. While programme types and institutional types are of course related, the focus on programmes effectively blocked a realistic discussion around institutional differentiation, according to Bunting.

This situation has changed with the proposal of the Green Paper, backed by South Africa’s National Development Plan, that institutions be placed in clusters of ‘universities’ (research-intensive), ‘comprehensives’ (institutions offering both academic and vocational programmes) and ‘universities of technology’.

This would align with the programme types recognised by the Higher Education Qualifications Framework – general, professional and vocational – and taken together, would produce a continuum of institutions. Hence the new tables.

The Green Paper proposed that institutions start with their current classification but that, after negotiation, category change would be possible. Each institution would enter into a contract with the DHET.

What this does rule out, however, is ‘self-determination’ as proposed by the vice-chancellors group Higher Education South Africa (HESA) in its 2010 Strategic Plan. The consensus at the seminar was that ‘self-determination’ was, as one participant put it, “dead in the water”.

It was not clear from the CHET presentation how this clustering would enable strategic decisions to be made, or how financing decisions would be arrived at, or how productivity would be incentivised and inefficiencies dealt with.

The participants were sobered to hear from ministerial Funding Review Committee member Gerald Omar that the committee had not explicitly considered differentiation in its deliberations, and that they were still talking in terms of ‘redress funding’ for historically disadvantaged universities, a notion based on an undifferentiated view of institutions.

Diane Parker from the DHET affirmed that the timing was propitious for a differentiation plan, that the department “needs to develop a framework” that would lead the system, and that they had shifted their view from one of differentiation as ‘redress’ to one of ‘diversity’.

But as she continued, it became clear that the department was not very far down the road in clarifying what it meant by ‘differentiation’, although she was clear that whatever it was, the department should be ‘steering’ it.

Saleem Badat, vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, agreed with Parker that times had changed, that there was a greater acceptance of the idea of differentiation and diversity, and that ground had been covered since HESA had first discussed the idea.

He displayed a sense of urgency to get beyond arguments for its desirability. What concerned Badat was how the department (or minister) proposed to proceed with ‘steering’? Accepting that ‘self-determination’ was not acceptable, what then would be the process for arriving at the model for each institution?

Would the minister proceed by diktat, or would the consultation be meaningful? His concern was rendered all the more vivid since it came as the new Transformation Oversight Committee was being announced to the press and sprung on the higher education community, and in the light of the newly promulgated Education and Training Laws Amendment Act of 2012.

An international dimension

The University of Oslo’s Peter Maassen brought an international dimension to the seminar. He noted that the Shanghai rankings were originally intended to help China move 30 of their universities into the world’s top 100, an effort that has so far failed.

He went on to argue that differentiation need not be principally on the basis of research performance, but that the debate should start rather with students who, he argued, are the core business of higher education: that is, with throughput and dropout rates, and the link between teaching and learning – that is to say, with efficiencies.

Should all universities have the same kind of high quality undergraduate education and be measured by the same efficiencies? This was the systemic question he thought should start the discussion.

The question could then be: should all universities offer doctoral programmes? Maassen clearly didn’t think so, citing the California system which, with roughly the same number of students as the South African system, had only 10 universities licensed to offer doctoral programmes. This did not mean universities could not have research niches of excellence.

What Maassen’s discussion brought to the fore for the first time in the South African context was the possibility that differentiation did not necessarily bear on research niche strength. In other words, we should separate research strength from the discussion of institutional differentiation.

Daya Reddy, director of the Centre for Research in Computational and Applied Mechanics at the University of Cape Town, argued for new thinking around differentiation. It was important to involve ‘coalface academics’ – like Reddy himself. In other words, the differentiation discussion needed to be opened to a wider academic constituency.


A number of points can be mentioned in conclusion:
  • • While for many of the ‘old hands’ at the seminar the discussion did not really raise any new ideas, it is clear that it should be opened to a broader constituency for discussion and input before it becomes set in stone.

  • • While the discussion has shifted from one about vertical differentiation (rankings along a unitary set of criteria) to horizontal differentiation (heterogeneity and diversity), there is still no clarity as to what the various allowable (funded by the public purse) variants might be.

    A subterranean current to the discussion concerned whether idiosyncratic variants might be welcome (‘one size does not fit all’; ‘self determination’) or whether there will be a rigid classification into which each institution will have to fit.

    For the moment, as Bunting noted and the Green Paper indicated, the pendulum seems to be swinging to the latter. But what the realistic implications will be – how this will be operationalised into an instrument with funding implications? – is as yet completely unclear.

  • • Specialised niche institutions, especially younger ones, seem to be a favoured model internationally, rather than the traditional all-purpose model inherited from the 19th century. Interestingly, newer institutions in the country (most of the historically ‘black’ institutions) might have an advantage in this regard, although it will require a political mind shift to effect.

  • • The seminar was informally informed that the ministry was readying itself to issue a position paper on differentiation – news received with some surprise since not even the department had knowledge of the position.

    The debate to date has been largely in terms of generalities, aided by charts provided by CHET and CREST, but there have been no implementation models put on the table for discussion, and the wider academic community is still in the dark about the entire issue.

    The minister’s announcements, and news of the next iteration of the Green Paper, will be anxiously awaited.