The ongoing project of ‘reimagining’ higher education

On 3 February 1995, President Nelson R Mandela signed into being the National Commission on Higher Education with the purpose of producing a plan for the transformation of South Africa’s university system and the individual institutions within it.

Needless to say, this commission did not adopt an ab initio approach since a system was already in place and the struggle for democracy had generated a tremendous amount of new thinking about the place and role of universities during a period that was to be driven by a nationally shaped programme and an ethic of reconstruction and development.

It was a heady time, a period of euphoria and great hope: here was an opportunity to revisit and reimagine higher education as a social institution in the service of a transforming society.

At the time of the commission the participation rate of 18- to 24-year olds sat at about 13-14% with fewer than 500,000 students in the system. The commission, like other policy processes at the time, zoomed in on five substantial projects.
  • • The first was the concern that the system was riven by deep race and gender imbalances – both amongst the student cohorts entering universities, among the academic staff and in the ranks of the senior leadership.

  • • The second was the perception of the disarticulation of the research and teaching agendas of the universities from the challenges of a reconstructing society and the needs of a reconstituting economy.

  • • The third was the deep fragmentation of the system resulting in deep inequalities: the rural versus urban universities, universities versus technikons and historically-black universities versus historically-white universities.

  • • The fourth was the perceived need to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the system.

  • • And the fifth was the idea that institutional governance ought to be more cooperative and involve internal and external stakeholders in joint governance.
In some form or the other these were all captured in the resulting Education White Paper 3: A Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education which in turn led to the far-reaching and interesting Higher Education Act 101 of 1997.

Evolving relationship between universities and state

Over the next 20 years, the implementation of this Higher Education Act produced vast changes to the system in each of these areas. In terms of governance, one saw the construction of newly designed councils of universities, the establishment of institutional forums and new relationships between the senates and councils. One saw also the emergence of much tighter definitions of institutional autonomy alongside demands for ever-increasing accountability (much of it bureaucratic).

Perhaps most importantly, the gradual creation of steering mechanisms that allow the state to shape the nature and form of the core and non-core functions of each university have fundamentally changed the relationship between the universities and the state.

In some ways the National Commission on Higher Education provided a kind of opportunity for the emergence of a social contract between higher education and society and it did pave the way at least for an evolving relationship between the state and the universities.

The act provided the basis for the mergers across the sector, the development of new institutional types, the absorption of the teaching education colleges into the universities, and so on. These major changes have not proven to be uniformly successful though much of the resulting rationalisation was suitable.

On the other hand, a number of deep systemic challenges persist. The system continues to be grossly underfunded although the Full-time Equivalent (FTE)-based national subsidy funding model does allow individual universities, through strategic choices in their student enrolments, to change their share of the national budget for subsidy.

However, the subsidy budget per FTE has been at best flat over the last 10 years. The differentiation drivers built into the subsidy system have resulted in the research-led universities being better funded than the teaching-led ones.

The problem is that this differentiation is fundamentally tied to the apartheid-era categories referred to above. And so, the poorly funded universities are most affected by this underfunding notwithstanding special pots of money that the state has from time-to-time made available for redress purposes. Perhaps the most important challenge continues to be the deeply fractured basic schooling system that fails our young, resulting in serious concerns about their levels of academic preparedness for higher education.

Throughput rates

Notwithstanding the establishment of the University Capacity Development Programme by the Department of Higher Education and Training and wonderful experiments at the universities, the undergraduate and postgraduate throughput rates, while improving, are still too low. While the absorption rate of graduates in the economy continues to be at an excellent rate, there are concerns about the extent to which this will continue.

Institutional spending on the staff compensation budget is often already too high, stymying any strategic spending on new infrastructure and new programme development. The capacity of the academy to reproduce itself in terms of producing sufficient high-quality PhDs in all areas of teaching and research is patchy at best and deeply concerning at worst. These, amongst many others, are deeply worrying issues.

The higher education system, in the intervening 22 years, has grown substantially with an enrolment that now sits at about 1 million; a participation rate of about 20%. The system has shifted, almost in silence, from one that was elite to one that is massified (or at least massifying). The number of actual students in the system has doubled since 1994.

There are three drivers of this. The first has to do with nearly magical growth in state spending on financial aid, first as a loan system for the poorest and now to a bursary system. The second is the inexorable demand for higher education, recognised by students and their families as an important engine for social mobilisation in one of the world’s most unequal societies. And the third is the fact that the broader post-school education and training sector outside of higher education continues to fail to capture the imagination of the youth.

At the other end of the spectrum, for about 10 years after 1994, the research output sat in the doldrums, barely shifting and being quite mediocrely placed internationally.

As a result of a series of interventions by the National Research Foundation but particularly by the Department of Higher Education and Training in terms of the establishment of a new funding system for research outputs, a fairly dramatic shift has occurred with the research output very nearly doubling in the last 10 years. While attention will have to be given to the quality of research outputs and the extent to which this research impacts social and economic innovation, it is a major achievement.

The next 20 years

The instability in South Africa’s higher education over the last three years stems from a particular history in its colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid foundations. As such it asks serious questions about the future of the system and how it is to respond to the challenges of, say, the next 20 years.

Through this period of student activism, two questions seem to percolate through. The first is about understanding how we would produce a higher education system that centres itself on a social justice agenda, an agenda that addresses what was, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, spoken of as the reconstruction and development agenda.

And the second is the question of its knowledge project: how we would design a higher education system and the institutions within it so that they enter the global knowledge system on their own terms by being intensely local at the same time as being globally connected.

At a more practical level, for the universities it is likely to be a future of further massification, resource constraints and challenges related to the construction of new legitimacy pathways through building deeper, stronger, more humane connections with local contexts, however these may be defined.

University World News Africa edition, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has been witness to a period of fascinating developments in South Africa’s higher education and Universities South Africa looks forward to working with it in the future. Happy 10th birthday!

Professor Ahmed Bawa is chief executive officer of Universities South Africa.