CHET – Reflections on an organisational journey

After establishing itself as a central player in the South African higher education policy sector in the late 1990s, the Centre for Higher Education Trust or CHET has broadened its horizons, moving into the area of African institutional development with an emphasis on research.

Despite its expansion, the organisation has stood by its mission and deepened its impact, continuing to provide much-needed evidence for policy design and decision-making. At last year’s Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, or HERANA, 3 meeting in Franschhoek near Cape Town, members of its board reflected on the journey thus far, with a few suggestions for the future.

CHET Board Chair and Higher Education Professor Teboho Moja said the recent renaming of CHET (‘Transformation’ changes to ‘Trust’) reflected both organisational shifts and an expansion of its role in the higher education sector over the course of its existence.

While the original mission of CHET had focused on systemic changes in a South African context, particularly through HERANA, its agenda had broadened to embrace institutional development in African universities more broadly, she said.

“In South Africa, CHET still continues to contribute to debates and inform policy as we have seen recently with issues relating to the #FeesMustFall campaign,” she said. In August last year, CHET Director Dr Nico Cloete made an evidence-based presentation to the national Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training (the 'Fees Commission') set up to look at the feasibility of free higher education.

Thus, while the organisation continues to contribute to and catalyse debate around critical issues, and link role-players, there has also been another shift in its mission: towards research and the building of research-related data.

“Thanks to the HERANA project that function became clearer and provided an opportunity for CHET to formalise that role,” said Moja.


CHET had also taken on a stronger advocacy role, particularly within the context of HERANA under the banner of which CHET had gone from one country to another sharing data, advocating the need for change and effectively opening up possibilities for African universities, particularly around research.

“Until HERANA was formed, we heard very little about institutions wanting to be more research-intensive. There was despair about the fact that African universities did not feature in global rankings, but with the advent of HERANA and other initiatives, there has been a shift towards a focus on what institutions are doing well and what can they continue to do well, rather than pegging themselves inappropriately against others.”

CHET had also extended its work into comparative arenas, and had brought in other international players representing regions such as Australasia and Asia, said Moja.

“In this way, CHET’s work in Africa and South Africa can be placed in the context of global developments,” said Moja. “Nico [CHET Director Nico Cloete] had an interest in linking higher education to development in the same way that others were doing in other parts of the world.”

Changes in CHET’s focus and activities were also reflected in the greater diversity of representatives on the CHET board, she said.

According to Moja, one of the most significant developments in CHET had been a narrowing of its focus. “The initial agenda was very broad, raising concerns from the board about capacity." Over time, the organisation learned to go much “deeper”, she said. As a result, the work coming out of the organisation, including its own publications and knowledge production, has been of better quality.

Such focus and streamlining has also applied to the organisational structure.

“CHET started with broad organisational structure and more employees and over time the structure was streamlined and the focus was on bringing in expertise when necessary. Efficiency became part of the way the organisation works.”

Phenomenal achievement

CHET has shown that a group of professionals with a sense of determination can get things done, said Esi Sutherland-Addy, professor at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana.

“CHET is a small organisation but what it has achieved is phenomenal. It has demonstrated to all of us in institutions you can do it; you can get groups of experts together who can investigate matters and disseminate information for the purpose of change.”

Sutherland-Addy said even though CHET’s work had evolved over the years, she admired the fact that the organisation had adhered to its principles and had not become scattered in its approach. “That’s an important position to take – to avoid mission creep – and I would encourage funders to respect that,” she said.

Currently a senior academic, Sutherland-Addy has also served in two ministerial positions as deputy minister for culture and tourism and higher education (1986 and 1986-93) respectively. She said CHET’s data-collection projects and emphasis on empirical bases for policy- and decision-making had set an example to institutions and governments.

“Thirty years ago, we were trying to undertake major reform in Ghana in order to create a differentiated higher education system and make sure the system absorbed sufficient numbers of students from secondary school. It became necessary for me to find the relevant information and it was tough,” she said.

The situation around information and data had since improved, helped in part by the introduction of HERANA, and she said it was “heartwarming” to see the progress towards data collection and analysis in universities themselves.

A logical response

Lidia Brito was the first minister of higher education, science and technology of Mozambique (2000–05) and deputy vice-chancellor of Eduardo Mondlane University (1998-2000). She is currently director of the Division of Science Policy and Sustainable Development at UNESCO.

She said forming CHET had been a “logical” step which responded to the needs of universities and higher education in Africa, particularly when it came to data. However, Brito said CHET needed to reach beyond institutional level to policy- and other decision-makers.

“I would like to see the connection of HERANA projects into higher education and science policy… We need to mobilise development actors not yet part of the ‘shared families’,” she said.

“We need to ask what it means to have research-intensive universities in terms of the national development agenda; what kind of higher education policy and science policy do we need to guarantee that there is one university that is research-intensive. And how that research will [in turn] contribute to the development agenda.”

According to Brito, researchers were too often speaking “to each other” rather than decision-makers and their potential contribution and impact were curtailed.

She said one of CHET’s "best moves" was to "clone itself" through HERANA and create the capacity in eight universities to collect and analyse data so they can reflect on their own progress in comparison with other institutions.

“CHET has been planting seeds everywhere, particularly in young people, and these will grow and change.”

Brito said African universities, rather than just their individual researchers, needed to participate in networks.

“Like it or not, if your institution is not part of global science, you don’t exist… It’s not only about research excellence, but about saying: we can collaborate; we have something to give, rather than waiting for knowledge to come to us.”

She said one of CHET’s future challenges was to tap into more networks and position itself as a global player able to represent the African perspective and alter perceptions of higher education in Africa.