Driving tertiary change through country partnerships

In recent years, governments around the world have invested heavily in their higher education systems in recognition of the fact that a strong knowledge base and the production of high level skills are essential for both social and economic development.

But this has not always been the case. When South Africa made the transition to democratic rule, many of the needs on the ground were so basic, evidence of the enormous damage done by apartheid, that investing in higher education seemed a wasteful luxury.

Nonetheless, aspirational needs were on the rise as well, and many newly liberated youngsters, keen to participate in the fledgling democratic nation, wanted access to the universities and the levels of learning that they offered.

In this atmosphere of fiercely competing demands, Norway – a long-standing supporter of South Africa’s liberation struggle and subsequent transformation – was approached to provide specific support for the realisation of certain higher education policy objectives.

It did so readily in the context of clearly understood goals and policies that it strongly endorsed. Students recruited by universities had to reflect the new reality. University managers and academics had to be reskilled to meet the new demands.

But how to go about it? What issues were properly the responsibility of government to address and what could be addressed with this sort of external funding?

According to the book Driving Change – The Story of the South Africa Norway Tertiary Education Development Programme, edited by Dr Trish Gibbon and recently published, questions abounded. With relatively modest resources, choices had to be made.

Institutions disadvantaged under apartheid were to be the primary beneficiaries, but of these, which ones? And within them, what areas were to be tackled?

“Do you offer support to the neediest and probably the weakest institutions in the group, or do you place resources where there is an already achieved level of capacity?” writes Gibbon, who was the director of the South Africa Norway Tertiary Education Development Programme, or SANTED, and after its conclusion became director of institutional planning, evaluation and monitoring at the University of Johannesburg.

The programme

Nasima Badsha, chief executive officer of the Cape Higher Education Consortium, writes that the policy imperatives that shaped SANTED were embedded in the 1997 White Paper on the Transformation of Higher Education and formed the basis for the bilateral agreement between South Africa and Norway.

SANTED was started in 2000 with a set of national projects that focused on improving the access to higher education of previously disadvantaged students, on their retention and academic success, and on building administrative and academic capacity in selected universities.

A further set of regional projects was designed to promote collaboration among universities in the Southern African Development Community area.

Why did this programme work when many other development cooperation programmes have produced, at best, mediocre outcomes? This is the central question addressed in Driving Change and informs all the fascinating accounts of particular project interventions.

By the end of the programme in 2010, it had project activities in 16 universities spanning seven countries, including South Africa, in three different thematic areas – which, as Gibbon remarks in her introduction, could have been a recipe for disaster in terms of thematic and geographical spread.

It has, nonetheless, been held up as an exemplary programme, and the reasons for its success are as multi-layered as the programme itself, starting with the shared principles and values of the two country partners.

Alignment of objectives is a constant theme and the appropriate translation of objectives into different contexts – from national to institutional – is another.

The point is made that unless an externally funded project connects with an institution’s central strategic plans and intentions, it will remain on the periphery and fail to leave any lasting legacy.

Norway’s role

Inger Stoll, senior adviser in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and an expert on aid effectiveness, aid policy and management, writes that SANTED was successful because of its fit with the broad policies of South Africa and Norway.

“It was a huge advantage that the programme was embedded in the higher education branch and the higher education policy sphere of the Department of Education. This secured the alignment of the programme with key policy objectives,” says Stoll.

Also, Norway gave high priority to ‘recipient responsibility’. “SANTED had a particular approach to institutional cooperation: a project must be wanted by someone, it needs to be driven by those who want it, and there must be something ‘in it’ for participants.”

Principles of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness – particularly ownership by the developing country, alignment with the country’s strategies, managing for results, and mutual accountability – were also adopted.

What did SANTED achieve?

In terms of social justice, access was a critical issue: after 1994, black students had nominal access to any university of their choice, but many did not meet the entrance requirements and by 2000, the overall participation rate in South African higher education was only 13%.

This became a major focus of attention in the first phase of the SANTED programme, but even when access was enabled, academic success remained elusive.

Colleen Howell notes that many students were dropping out before finishing their studies. The SANTED projects allowed for a level of experimentation where solutions were not always obvious and successes in turn led to major innovations.

New senior portfolios around teaching and learning were set up and strengthened at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Innovative monitoring and evaluation systems were established to enhance student enrolment and track progress.

Pamela Maseko, a senior lecturer in the school of languages at Rhodes University in South Africa and former SANTED coordinator, writes that many students had problems in the use of English as a language of instruction, as it was not their mother tongue.

“Research on bilingual and multilingual teaching and learning models in higher education is not advanced enough to support the implementation of multilingualism,” argues Maseko.

But SANTED in 2006 offered an opportunity for universities – Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal, Rhodes, Durban University of Technology and the University of Zululand – to run trial multilingual projects with a variety of objectives.

Conceptual glossaries, for example, assisted the development of conceptual understanding for students in the transition from one language to another.

SANTED legacy

Robert Smith, former director of LINS, the International Education Centre at Oslo University in Norway, says SANTED demonstrates that relatively modest inputs can create much larger outputs or outcomes.

In almost all of the beneficiary institutions, SANTED project interventions became part of mainstream activities and in some cases produced structural changes.

“Sustainability … may be measured in terms of the mainstreaming of activities, finance committed, staff appointed, significant changes in institutional culture and the level to which an innovation becomes an orthodoxy.”

* Driving Change was launched in May by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town.