Edging closer to differentiation in higher education

South Africa’s 23 universities and its university system are often said to be highly differentiated. This would be a fair conclusion to reach if one takes the sets of output and performance measures developed by policy research institutes such as the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, or CHET, in Cape Town, and the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, or CREST, at Stellenbosch University.

But from a different perspective, one might regard them as indices measuring efficiency according to a common range of indicators. This has in the recent past, besides acting as an incentive to greater effort, produced two sub-optimal reactions from the university sector in South Africa.

The first is vociferous argument from the institutions judged lower down the scale that the criteria and metrics of measurement discriminate against them – they have a point here – but that therefore they should be appropriately funded over and above their normal allocation (usually referred to as ‘redress funding’) in order to allow them to ‘catch up’ and compete on a level terrain.

The second is a more covert process of unconstrained institutional isomorphism and academic drift as institutions jostle to position themselves closer to the cluster of institutions garnering prestige at the apex of the performance tree. This is a globally recognisable phenomenon, and depressingly common.

Overcoming institutional isomorphism

In two important seminars organised by CHET earlier this year, Frans van Vught and Lynn Meek presented a template designed to help national systems break the self-defeating cycle of institutional isomorphism, the drive to convergence which confutes any attempt to cater to the diversity of higher education skill and research output needed for any thriving economy.

This template entails a process of what van Vught called ‘performance contracting’, which starts with a pact between a higher education ministry and each institution to craft a targeted niche of programme and research focus areas.

An ideally independent commission with credibility and legitimacy should monitor adherence to the targets attached to the institutional mission. Crucially, non-adherence should carry financial penalties.

This is a template for planned systemic institutional differentiation, and has had some successes – in Hong Kong and the Netherlands, for example. Van Vught admits that this process does not naturally appeal to institutions used to determining their own areas of focus in time-honoured autonomous fashion. It’s a hard sell, but has to be and can be done, said van Vught.

The seminars presented by van Vught and Meek came at the tail end of a period during which the South African ministry had been edging, somewhat glacially, ever closer to a differentiation policy and plan.

In July 2014 the Department of Higher Education and Training finally published a long-awaited Policy Framework on Differentiation in the South African Post-school System. It had been a long wait, and the slow movement can be charted from the White Paper of 1997 when the idea of institutional differentiation was first officially mooted.

Over this time, CHET had been organising periodic meetings of academics, policy analysts, and some government personnel, starting as early as 2006.

Stakeholders talk to each other

Their most recent meeting, held in partnership with the Stellenbosch University’s Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, or SciSTIP, in October 2014, included for the first time senior officials from both the departments of Higher Education and Training and of Science and Technology, the chief executive officer of the association representing all universities, Higher Education South Africa, and a representative spread of senior university personnel.

All eyes were on the officials from the Department of Higher Education and Training, or DHET, to see how it intended to take forward the recently announced policy on differentiation, a document frustratingly short on substantive detail beyond affirming that government envisaged no change to the tripartite institutional system currently operating in the country – research-intensive universities, comprehensive universities and universities of technology.

Would they grasp the nettle and adopt something approaching the van Vught template?

A series of empirically based papers outlined programme, research, financial and transformation indicators as possible components of a template for planning and targeting.

A CHET paper went further and suggested an important modification to the van Vught template, distinguishing between mandates and missions.

In a not fully mature system like South Africa’s, implied CHET, government needed to take the lead by establishing a mandate for each of the three institutional types, comprised of performance baselines – a possible example of which CHET went on to advance.

Institutions could then craft their own particular institutional missions and niches within the broad ambit of the mandate guidelines, with penalties for non-adherence to the mutually agreed-upon performance targets in the spirit of van Vught’s template.

A bold proposal

What the CHET paper stressed above all was the need for a balance between the big stick of mandates and the safer and more familiar autonomy of self-crafted missions.

If mandates are prioritised, the individual latitude of missions would get lost together with the singular virtue of knowledge-directed activities which cannot be centrally planned; if missions were to drive the process then the question arose: against what was the mission to be held accountable?

The meeting gave the bold proposal a cool reception as institutional leaders realised that the latitude they currently enjoyed to craft (largely aspirational) mission statements would be rather constrained by such a system.

The departmental spokesperson proceeded cautiously to outline the thinking for taking this thorny matter forward. She reminded the workshop that the current mechanism for steering institutions, enrolment planning, needed to be supplemented with agreed-upon targets for efficiencies, undergraduate-postgraduate ratios, research outputs and collaborations.

How would notoriously non-compliant institutions be held to these targets?

Although not yet departmental policy as such, they were thinking about tying compliance to the institution’s discretionary grants, which would be changed to targeted grants if they defaulted, which would, in the case of continued defaulting, be withdrawn entirely.

This sounded like real movement towards planned differentiation with teeth, and the workshop participants were appropriately enthusiastic.

Vestiges of the past were still apparent – for example, in the form of proposed earmarked ‘development grants’ to ‘historically disadvantaged institutions’ that sounded like the old ‘redress grants’ to some participants.

But the new resolve to monitor the negotiated missions and agreed-upon targets – through mid-term reporting and evaluation by expert panels – certainly sounded a brisker, more workmanlike note than was hitherto apparent in communiqués from Pretoria.

A set of questions

This then raised the following set of questions: on what basis would the institutional mission plans be negotiated? How would the department set targets for each of the three institutional types without mandate baselines?

On the basis of what measure could the department insist on institutional targets institutions themselves might be unwilling to accept without a legitimate external baseline to which each could be held accountable?

And to what external legitimate measure could the department itself be held accountable, and so avoid the lingering suspicion that it might be tempted to cut cosy deals with favoured or politically connected institutions?

How serious was the department really about national development towards which planned differentiation was, in the end, supposed to be directed?

New knowledge and new PhDs

It was left to the spokesperson for the Department of Science and Technology to sketch in some aspects of the development agenda everyone ought to keep in mind.

The one with the greatest knock-on effect for the future production of new knowledge and new PhDs is the emergence of future young academics with productive capacity and inclination.

It was reported that of the 12,000 lecturers and senior lecturers currently in the university system, only 500 have applied for and received research funding from the National Research Foundation, which is just under 5% of the cohort. This shocking figure shows the brake on research productivity from the new talent coming into the system.

Why were new-entry academics not applying for grants? What does this portend for the future productive research pool of the nation? Where is the bottleneck? Above all, what is the solution?

The answers showed the deep fissures that still divide the academic corps of the country.

For those who wish to prioritise development, the answer seems clear: plough resources into the institutions with demonstrated track record of producing active researchers, since this is the only way to give the system a sustained and sustainable push.

For those who wish to prioritise transformation, the answer seems equally clear: all available resources should be directed to the institutions that do not (yet) have the capacity to develop active researchers.

For those of the latter persuasion, producing the much-needed knowledgeable capacity, which the country urgently needs to grow, takes a back seat to the overriding equity imperative, since it is clear we don’t have the resources to do both adequately enough, as the dwindling financial allocations to all institutions over the last 20 years graphically signals.

It is this dispiriting dilemma, and the reciprocal costs it brings, that might have persuaded the DHET to decide against publicly announced mandate targets, which will without doubt be divisive, for the time being at least.

Need to work together

There were signs for the first time that the intervening realities had sufficiently sobered academics and civil servants alike, and there was apparent a new determination expressed on all sides for the civil servants, planners and scholars to work together.

The planners had realised they needed to be more systematic, the scholars had developed metrics that were increasingly useful to the planners, and the DHET was beginning to see it could not do this alone.

It was proposed that the department set up a number of expert groups that could help craft some of the needed detail on the basis of expertise in the new metrics and institutional experience.

This returned the workshop to the bottom line for going forward: the efficiency of public investment in the university sector simply had to be increased in order that the twin imperatives of development and transformation could be funded – and only a differentiated system stood a chance of doing that.

The bridge building efforts of CHET over time seemed at last to be bearing fruit. The workshop ended with a new sense of cautious optimism. Scholars and planners were to help the department put some flesh on the bones of the differentiation plan.

How the department would proceed – whether it would have sufficient political support and backing to follow the charted path – was the great imponderable going forward.

* Johan Muller is emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town. This article, “Almost There? South Africa edges closer to planned differentiation in higher education”, was commissioned by CHET and SciSTIP and is published with permission.