Which way to 2030? Higher education leaders reflect

The Third Biennial Research and Innovation Conference of the vice-chancellors' association Higher Education South Africa, held from 2-4 April in Pretoria, could be seen as a bold step towards deconstructing the vision of the country's National Planning Commission for the higher education sector.

However, far bolder steps are needed in order to do justice to the full scope of transformative goals necessary to allow the sector to embrace a programme of long-term change such as that called for in the commission's National Development Plan: Vision for 2030.

These actions are the responsibility of both the National Planning Commission, or NPC, and the higher education sector.

The Higher Education South Africa, or HESA, conference was themed "Higher Education Engaging with the National Development Plan: Exploring the possibilities and limits of research and innovation".

It brought together a range of key stakeholders including the government departments of Higher Education and Training, and Science and Technology, corporations such as Sasol and FirstRand Ltd, and research agencies and councils including the Human Sciences Research Council and the Water Research Commission.

The diverse composition of the participants reflected some synchronicity with the NPC's proposal for a 'national education pact', which envisions building a kind of professionalised education alliance out of the myriad institutions and organisations - government, political parties, unions, business, civil society organisations, student organisations and professional associations - that have a collective interest in strengthening the higher education sector.

The National Development Plan

This theme of the National Development Plan, or NDP, was chosen by HESA's Research and Innovation Strategy Group, which is a specialised grouping of senior academics tasked with advising the HESA board on matters of research and innovation relevant to South Africa.

Given the central importance of the NDP for South Africa's development trajectory, the theme was deemed fit to create an important space for critical reflection and debate on exactly what the plan calls on the higher education sector to do.

A two-day conference can never hope to sustain this kind of ambitious agenda. However it can provide a strategic entry point into the kinds of debates and discussions that may embrace an exciting and progressive agenda for long-term change and revitalisation in the higher education sector.

Having filled the conference rooms at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research with some of the brightest in South Africa's higher education sector - as well as two international speakers from Germany and the United Kingdom - it is hoped that the strategic space created will now be nurtured and sustained by a programme of action to be designed by the Research and Innovation Strategy Group in the year ahead.

The NDP is clear that higher education has a key role to play in "writing a new story for South Africa" (2011: 4). It strongly acknowledges the range of societal benefits derived from higher education:

"Higher education is the major driver of the information-knowledge management system, linking it with economic development. However higher education is much more than a simple instrument of economic development. Education is important for good citizenship and enriching and diversifying life." (2011: 274)

But the NDP does not firmly establish a sense of the uniquely important role that higher education can potentially play in contributing in a profound and catalytic sense to South Africa's development trajectory.

Weak consultation

Perhaps one of the most salient points emerging from the HESA conference is that of the relevance of the NDP proposals for the higher sector and the extent to which the inputs of the sector have informed the proposals contained in the plan.

In November 2011 the NPC released its draft National Development Plan, which recognised the critical role that education, training and innovation would play in achieving South Africa's long-term development objectives by contributing towards "eliminating poverty and reducing inequality" and laying "the foundations of an equal society".

The NPC emphasised the draft status of the plan and invited universities to submit inputs to its secretariat - and institutions did this. It was also noted that the final plan would be a product of broad consultation with all universities.

HESA, as an association of the public universities, also submitted a response to the NPC which, though not fully representative, was inclusive of the views of several of its members.

The travails of consultation aside - and this criticism applies to other aspects of the plan and the stakeholders involved - it is still difficult to see how the consultative inputs of universities have informed, both individually and collectively, the broader shape and design of the proposals for the higher education sector.

Take for example the ever-present tension between the sciences and the arts-humanities in higher education.

It is toward this end that the government's National Plan for Higher Education of 2001 proposed changing the balance of enrolments towards science, engineering and technology disciplines while decreasing the predominance of enrolments in the social sciences and humanities.

A decade later, the NDP advocates similarly for skills development in the area of science and technology and more specifically for higher education playing a role in resolving the skills shortage by producing qualified graduates and postgraduates and generating research and innovation.

The plan acknowledges that "the humanities are important for understanding some of the most difficult challenges the country faces such as transformation, violence, corruption, education, service delivery, innovation, the gap between the rich and the poor and the issue of race".

It raises the issue of the future of the humanities but without proposing some form of resolution between the competing imperatives of a simultaneous push for science and technology and a boost to the humanities.

It is possible to surmise that meaningful consultation with the universities would have certainly surfaced the issue and elevated it into a debate-worthy topic for the NDP to engage.

Is this a gripe at the NDP and a missed opportunity to dialogue fully with the higher education sector in order to make its diagnosis of the issues that much more robust?

This is not the case. In fact it is possible to say that there is something of a fallacious aspect to the generalised assumption of a 'plan' or a set of strategies that explicitly maps out a path toward a 2030 scenario.

Time for universities to act

If anything, the NDP provides a roadmap to the array of challenges facing the sector. It is the responsibility of the sector itself to galvanise itself into a programme of action that is guided by the broad parameters established by the plan.

The NDP provides the opportunity to break out of its individual and collective 'silo' and engage in visionary thinking about the 'game changers' for the higher education system as a whole.

This, then, is the real value-add of organisations such as HESA, which are positioned to mobilise the sector into the mindset of long-term planning.

* Annsilla Nyar is manager: research and policy analysis at Higher Education South Africa.