Differentiated HE missions are key to social progress

The concept of transformation in South African higher education has evolved as a powerful motif with historical roots in the struggle against apartheid projecting into different phases of the post-apartheid era. Transformation in higher education has been framed by wider aspirations for transformation linked to the public good role of higher education.

There is no doubt that there has been genuine and impressive transformation in the South African higher education system as a result of the vision and commitment of government representatives, higher education leaders, academic faculty, administrators and students.

However, throughout the various transformation phases that have taken place since the 1990s, tensions have emerged which were not anticipated by the key players in South Africa. Ideological and political differences and the realities of limited resources underlay such tensions.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Further tensions were caused by the gap between the high expectations that followed from the end of apartheid, the difficulties of accommodating competing priorities and demands and limited government and institutional capacity.

Progress and challenges

The Nelson Mandela presidential period, for example, was dominated by discussions of a break with the apartheid past and redress for past inequities. In higher education, the key transformative principle in this early period appears to be a narrow focus on demographic transformation, particularly of the student body in relation to race, although this was extended to gender, age and disability.

There appears to be the assumption that access to higher education for those who were previously excluded would automatically contribute to development in general and the public good in particular.

In contemporary times, race is still a key factor in transformation debates, but this is infused with new debates on whether race should remain a criterion, given the development of a black middle class, or whether other indicators of disadvantage, such as quintile of school, would be more equitable.

The second redress strategy proposed that was linked to transformation was that of massification. The concern was, however, that rapid massification in a situation in which school preparation was unequal, and in which the staff to student ratio in higher education would become even greater, could result in an overall reduction in quality, and progress has indeed been uneven.

In 2012, the National Development Plan set a target of 30% participation in higher education by 2030, calling for massification with differentiation, in combination with robust quality checks.

This policy initiative had strong links with the Council on Higher Education-commissioned report Towards a New Higher Education Landscape, released in 2000, which made a case for higher education as a public good, and argued that transformation required the creation of a diverse and differentiated higher education system.

Linked to the ‘transformation debate’ on equity are the fault lines arising from the past but gaining increasing traction in contemporary times around the issue of institutional culture and relevant curricula.

Differentiation and stratification

The development of a higher education system comprising a diversity of institutions offering high-quality academic and vocational choices with inter-connected progression routes is an important step towards both greater equity as well as holding out great potential for the contribution of higher education to wider social and economic development.

However, insufficient attention has been paid to developing policy and funding instruments that are genuinely differentiated to steer and reward diverse sets of institutions. There are also inadequate incentives for different types of institutions to excel in different missions. These factors lead to rising isomorphism and militate against a more inclusive higher education system contributing to inclusive development.

An influential trend that has gained momentum worldwide is the competition for world-class status. The assumption is that the transfer of the lion’s share of resources into universities identified as world class will contribute in a direct manner to the social and economic development of the country as a whole.

However, the jury is still out on whether the training of an elite social segment in elite universities automatically contributes to national development, particularly since world-class universities are often embedded in global networks with multinational corporations and contribute to global rather than national innovation in developing countries.

In addition, the argument that world-class universities in highly stratified systems are the best route for higher education to contribute to national innovation is challenged by the success of the relatively non-hierarchical system of higher education in countries such as Finland and Germany.

In addition, the research and prestige mission entrusted to elite universities is often diametrically opposed to enhancing equality. Few benefits trickle down to support institutions that admit large numbers of students from the most disadvantaged sectors of society.

Finally, there appear to be inadequate connections between higher education policy and the wider economic and social policies of the country.

Inclusive development

The uncertain and ambiguous approach to inclusive development adopted across various presidential periods in South Africa suggests major challenges to the realisation of a developmental state in South Africa capable of steering the country towards a model of inclusive development.

While the state has implemented a range of policies in the pursuit of economic growth, the interaction of such growth with poverty, inequality and unemployment has been complex.

The relationship between the state and higher education which has been characterised as cooperative governance with state supervision has in practice meant that universities have at times been faced with the state making far-reaching decisions with no prior negotiation.

Transformation merely perceived as enhanced access in the absence of support mechanisms aiding students in overcoming structural, social and individual level barriers (in the context of transformed institutional cultures) is unlikely to work.

The question of transformed curricula has to be grasped by the horn at the same time as acknowledging that equating knowledge in a simplistic manner to the national context or certain cultures may result in the detachment of higher education from powerful global knowledge structures and from wider procedures for generating better knowledge.

In addition, undifferentiated governance and funding mechanisms are likely to lead to mission drift and isomorphism and the development of a dysfunctionally stratified system unable to contribute fully to inclusive development.

Moreover, a balance needs to be found between funding and governance mechanisms that protect the existing quality of research and teaching while incentivising a diversity of missions across different types of institutions.

Further attention on how policy and funding can shape the relationship between different types of domestic institutions, as well as foreign and private institutions, in order to build capacity is vitally important.

An important area for research consideration is the extent to which policy fosters collaboration, competition or functional differentiation between the different sets of providers.

In addition, the assumption that publicly funded institutions are likely to contribute in an unproblematic way to the public good is misplaced. Universities have historically played multiple roles, sometimes contributing to the transformation of societies and at other times reproducing unequal relations in society and more often than not, doing both simultaneously.

Research therefore needs to be conducted on which functions of the higher education system need to be publicly funded and protected.

World-class systems

In most countries, governments have responded to the perceived insularity of higher education by implementing mechanisms to open up higher education to economic forces, to encourage higher education to contribute more directly to economic development and to foster closer relations with industry.

However, while there has been a great deal of policy rhetoric, there has in general been little corresponding link between financial or performance incentives and the provision of public goods.

It is undoubtedly true that research-focused public institutions may be best able to succeed if the goal to provide certain levels of higher education on a mass scale can be met by other providers. However, at the same time, for countries such as South Africa, given the national resources consumed, it could be argued that these universities need to do more than simply chase prestige.

The idea is not to tear down elite universities, but to find a balance between protecting the research and teaching excellence in elite universities and giving these institutions shared responsibility for building capacity in the system as a whole.

Scarce national resources could be distributed to create world-class systems of higher education that contribute to inclusive development, rather than world-class universities that contribute to the development of an elite in higher education and to the reinforcement of stratification in the wider society.

Finally, a development strategy linking national, social and economic development strategies to higher education policy in the context of an appropriate measure of institutional autonomy is an important area to address.

The idea of developing a skills strategy around the interlocking potential of low, intermediate and high skills to allow for greater variability and unevenness is persuasive and has implications for a mixture of investment strategies in higher and other levels of education, including vocational training.

At the same time, such efforts to expand human capabilities through education have to be linked to the redistribution of material resources to South African citizens as a whole, while providing incentives for individuals to invest in their own capabilities through joined up macro industrial strategies linked to equitable and dignified forms of employment.

Rajani Naidoo is professor of higher education management in the School of Management at the University of Bath, United Kingdom. Rushil Ranchod is fellow in international development, University of Bath, UK. This is an edited version of their chapter on South Africa in the recently published book Higher Education Pathways, South African Undergraduate Education and the Public Good, co-edited by Paul Ashwin and Jennifer M Case and published by African Minds.