Differentiation: Africa lags (again) – Or does it?

Universities have never been as crucial to nation states as they are today. This is because, in order to compete in the global economy, nations need their university sectors to produce and apply knowledge, and to produce knowledgeable and well-skilled workers across the skill spectrum. This much is contemporary common sense.

In order to get the best out of the university sector, states must take two key decisions.

The first has to do with what diversity in the system will best produce the optimal results for national innovation. The second is: do they want one or two world-class universities? And is this still an option for all nations?

Will Africa have a world-class university in the foreseeable future?

The blunt answer is no, if the consensus arrived at by a recent international gathering in Chicago of university presidents is to be believed. In a review of higher education projected to 2025, the presidents foresaw the following, globally:
  • • A first layer of highly prestigious, highly resourced and very productive universities, 35 to 60 in number.
  • • A second layer of 200 to 250 universities in consortia, sharing resources, offering joint and mutually accredited programmes, and therefore able to compete internationally.
  • • A third tier of about 200 institutions comprising a range of niche players, strictly focused on three or four fields at most.
  • • A large fourth tier of mainly regional institutions, about 24,200 in number.
  • • A group of high-tech MOOCS.
According to this scenario, if Africa garners a handful of second and third tier places it will be doing very well indeed. Is this all doom and gloom for Africa?

Not according to Frans van Vught, formerly director of CHEPS – the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente in The Netherlands – and currently high level expert on innovation, research and higher education at the European Commission

He presented a set of bracing workshops to scholars and administrators in January 2014 in Johannesburg and Cape Town, under the auspices of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, or CHET.

The first lesson for Africa is: do not even try to play at the first level, because no developing economy institution has the resources needed to make a realistic bid for the first league. It is the second and third tiers that beckon for Africa.

And here the lesson is unambiguous and pointed: without a diversified system, countries will not even get onto the map. According to this analysis, diversification – or differentiation, as it is called in a still bubbling national debate in South Africa – is simply no longer optional.

The question for Van Vught and accompanying higher education scholar Lyn Meek, former director of the LH Martin Institute in Melbourne, is: has the state got requisite political will to leverage diversification, and how best to go about it. It is no longer a question of ‘if’ but of ‘how’.


The reason universities will not diversify themselves if left to their own devices comes down to two features of university systems that have been confirmed in numerous studies.

The first is that, left to themselves, universities will tend to converge because, by competing with each other, they naturally tend to imitate the institutions perceived as of higher status.

When states have a unitary policy environment for all institutions in the sector, this will simply amplify the tendency. It is this tendency that a diversified policy environment must aim to interrupt.

The second spur to convergence is the presence of traditional academic values. The more these infuse the sector, the harder it is to interrupt the tendency toward imitation.

Newer university systems have a small advantage in this regard, but this advantage is vitiated if the system has only one or two national universities, which tend to match themselves to their international counterparts, naturally trying to trade up.

Everything points to a concerted effort by states intent on innovation and global competitiveness to give serious consideration to a national strategy of diversification. How to do it is the tricky thing, since universities are almost by definition conservative and resist perceived interference by the state to modify their missions.

Diversification ideas

Fortunately there are some useful international examples that begin to point out the opportunities and pitfalls, notably from Hong Kong and The Netherlands (according to Van Vught), with one negative example – how not to do it – from Australia (according to Meek).

Van Vught spelt out the steps to introduce what he called a process of ‘performance contracting’, which basically means getting institutions to commit to a particular focused teaching and research niche and set of performance targets, with attendant inducements and sanctions attached. These have to be real if the system is to work.

The steps are as follows: there has to be an agreement or pact between the minister and the relevant university association.

The minister must undertake to respect academic freedom, but each institution must undertake to craft a mission which ties it to specific focal areas – these programmatic and research areas, not others – and to specific performance targets, like retention rates, drop out rates, indirect cost levels, student satisfaction levels and so on.

Institutions must be free to make independent proposals about this mission niche, and reaching finality on this cannot be rushed. Most importantly, not all universities in a system can do research, and then not in all areas.

Once the agreement or pact is in place, an independent commission must be established to oversee it, with an independent secretariat and, crucially, sufficient expertise and legitimacy to run it. Van Vught is insistent that the commission must be independent, but this may be a sticking point in some small systems.

The pact must also reach a sufficient consensus. In The Netherlands, this meant that institutions that refused to go along with the pact lost 7% of their grants from the state. There was a mid-term review that, if it turned out negatively, meant a loss of 2% of grant funding; and an end-of-term review where, again if negative, meant loss of 7% of their future public funding.

It is critical that the commission is able to show an increase of diversity for continuing legitimacy. Nevertheless, even in high consensus systems like Hong Kong and The Netherlands there was a good deal of academic dissatisfaction. According to Van Vught and Meek however, it is emphatically worth the effort.

The Australian effort failed to develop sufficiently delicate policy levers to reward attainment and sanction deviation from the agreed niche. The result was a huge waste of money.

The lesson from Australia is very clearly that targets without rewards and sanctions, in other words within a homogeneous policy environment, produces competition, and in higher education at any rate, competition produces imitation, convergence and lack of diversity.

The South African case

In South Africa, a modest form of enrolment and programme targeting has been attempted, the so-called ‘programme and qualification mix’ system, but with very weak sanctions that have not prevented a good deal of mission drift and convergence, in line with Van Vught and Meek’s predictions.

Again, a mission pact or targeting without policy ‘teeth’ will not produce the desired outcome.

The hardest part of this lesson is consigning institutions with high aspirations to a niche they feel is unworthy of them. This may well be demotivating unless skillfully handled. The university concerned must feel that the agreed upon niche ‘fits’ with the institution’s own aspirations and self-image.

Once again Van Vught underscores the importance of an independent agency to act as monitor in the agreement between state and institution.

In the end, we are unlikely to see an easy moderation of ambitions in a university sector where diversity has so often in the past been seen through the lens of higher or lower status, as sociologists have long predicted, and as abetted by the halo effects of global rankings.

Pacts are not easy to achieve in the university sector, Van Vught warns, and the risks are great. The alternative however is convergence, sameness and mediocrity.

The custodians of higher education in Africa must not allow this to happen through failure of political will, for innovation, progress and prosperity for the nation as a whole will be the casualty.

* Johan Muller is emeritus professor in the school of education at the University of Cape Town.