Great expectations for universities of technology

South Africa’s Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande has cautioned universities of technology to avoid “mission drift” towards degree programmes, including postgraduate and research programmes, arguing that without more diplomas to address a dire need for scarce skills at a technical level, the country would be “in trouble”.

Outlining his department’s list of expectations of universities of technology at the Seventh Annual International South African Technology Network, or SATN, conference, held from 14-16 October near Durban, the minister said former polytechnics – which gained university status in 2004 – should resist becoming traditional universities.

“You should be proud of producing good diplomates… Don’t be in a hurry to produce degrees,” he told delegates.

A network of leaders of universities of technology, the SATN was formed in 2006 to represent the interests of universities of technology both nationally and internationally and to share best practice.

Hosted by Mangosuthu University of Technology, the theme of this year’s conference – which acknowledged the 10-year anniversary of the creation of universities of technology – was “Enhancing Teaching, Learning and Assessment Initiatives in Universities of Technology: Looking back and going forward”.

Among his department’s other expectations was that universities of technology should “support and strengthen” the technical and vocational education and training – TVET, formerly known as FET – college system.

This would help to create a “seamless system” from school to college to university and workplace transition – a critical component of the Department of Higher Education and Training or DHET’s goal to create a single, coordinated post-school education and training system and one of the “most important roles” of the universities of technology.

Support for technical and vocational colleges

“We want a much more closely articulated system between TVET and university of technology systems, and we are increasingly going to focus our funding for the system towards these,” Nzimande said.

Allied to this, the minister said his department wanted universities of technology to train TVET college lecturers who would then be able to offer high quality programmes that would also articulate with the university system.

Expanding the types of higher education certificates offered in TVET colleges would be a “concrete way” in which to absorb out-of-school youth, providing a bridge into both universities and diploma programmes in TVET colleges or an entry point into the workplace.

While fostering partnerships with the TVET college sector is an official component of the 2014-18 SATN Strategic Plan, the reality of articulation is widely accepted as a complicated process.

The thorny differentiation issue

The issue of mission drift is more openly contested – a “thorny subject” with a “long history” as Mangosuthu University of Technology Vice-chancellor Professor Mashupye Kgaphola described it in his closing remarks at the conference.

At the heart of the problem lies some fluidity in the definition of ‘differentiation’, and a lack of parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications in South Africa – the latter being one of the “conceptual and organisational incongruities” identified by the recent report of the Ministerial Committee on Articulation Policy.

In a 2012 response to the Green Paper for Post-School Education and Training – now the White Paper which was launched by the DHET in November last year – SATN defended the right of those universities of technology with adequate capacity to offer degree programmes, in particular four-year professional degrees offered in the context of demand and adequate support from professional councils, and adherence to a system of international benchmarking.

“Surely what is important is the purpose and the quality of the provision, rather than strict adherence to the ‘mission’,” the submission notes.

The response also highlighted a central and ongoing concern of universities of technology – funding equity.

Universities of technology have argued that the higher education funding framework gives a higher order weighting to postgraduates across the sector, thereby putting institutions such as universities of technology – which cater primarily for undergraduate students – at a disadvantage.

Thus the SATN response notes: “It should be remembered that there is no differentiation in funding provision and incentives for higher education providers, and in some cases this might contribute to inappropriate ‘mission drift’.”

As one SATN delegate put it: “If we are universities, shouldn’t we be allowed to be universities?”


Kgaphola told University World News on the sidelines of the SATN conference that the last few years had seen some excellent research being conducted at universities of technology. In his closing remarks at the conference he called for “further engagement” with the department.

On the issue of the increased involvement of universities of technology in TVET college support, he said there may be “undeclared assumptions” which may need to be teased out. “We are sitting with an unfunded mandate, an extra burden not otherwise factored into the funding of universities of technology,” he told delegates.

For his part, Nzimande alluded to further “behind closed doors” discussions with the sector into the possibility of universities of technology accessing money from Sector Education and Training Authorities – SETAs – and other skills levy-funded institutions to offer short and medium-term training programmes to employers instead of current practice which is enriching public service providers.

The minister said he would like to see representatives from SETAs sitting on university councils in order to build concrete relationships between the two sectors.

Among other key expectations, the minister outlined the need for institutions, particularly universities of technology – which he said tended to be those institutions most frequently placed under administration – to focus on improved governance and administration.

A “ruthless” mechanism must be developed to deal with all forms of corruption, Nzimande said.

The next generation

Directing his attention more specifically to the theme of this year’s conference – enhancing teaching, learning and assessment initiatives – the minister said his department had developed a number of interventions to improve teaching and learning.

One of the most exciting is the Next Generation of Academics Programme – part of the DHET’s broader Staffing South African Universities plan – which aims to replenish the country’s ageing body of (most senior and most productive) academics by setting aside funding for entry-level academic posts.

According to Professor Nan Yeld, director of university teaching and learning development at the DHET, the “transformational” initiative kicks off at the start of 2015 with a cohort of young academics who will undergo a six-year induction process.

Yeld said the posts would be permanent and individual institutions would be expected to apply for them. The initiative aims to help meet an estimated need over the next five years for at least 1,100 new academics per annum.

In closing, Nzimande said it was clear that the SATN could make a positive contribution to government efforts to “roll out several ambitious initiatives designed to build the kinds of capacity in our higher education system that can help deliver high quality, relevant and effective graduates and meet national needs”.