‘Articulation remains a work in progress in higher education’

The realisation of a fully articulated higher education system in South Africa remains elusive, due to many complexities and lack of policy implementation.

This is according to a chapter titled, ‘Articulation into and within the higher education system’, by Mahlapahlapana Themane, Layane Mabasa and Dikeledi Mahlo, which was published in the Council on Higher Education’s (CHE) Review of Higher Education in South Africa Twenty-five Years into Democracy.

The CHE is a statutory body that provides advice to the minister of higher education and training, and also produces updates on the state of higher education in the country. This is its fourth review since 1994.

The authors point out that one of the initiatives the newly elected ANC government undertook to democratise education and training was to introduce the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), which aims to “facilitate access to, and mobility and progression within, education, training and career paths”, and tackle discrimination in education.

The aim of the democratic government has been to have a single, integrated, coordinated and fully articulated national higher education system, with processes for student movement from technical, vocational and education and training (TVET) colleges to universities, taking along with them credits for courses completed. Articulation also refers to students moving from one university to another, while learning is lifelong.

The authors point out that articulation is beneficial to students and institutions as it means lower drop-out rates or failure without recognition, in the form of credits for the number of courses or modules passed; increased programme choice; the possibility of non-traditional learning experiences being credited and the possibility of moving between institutions to pursue lifelong learning.

“The convergence of articulation with the imperatives of transformation and democratisation has positioned it as a highly desirable and laudable process of widening student mobility and access,” assert the authors.

“However, this convergence has complexities in not only facilitating academic pathways, but also in navigating them “through what remains disparate and binary higher education institutions. As a result, the realisation of a fully articulated higher education system in South Africa, remains elusive,” assert the authors.

Lack of targets

Furthermore, they point out that it is difficult to be conclusive about whether sufficient progress has been made in articulation in the South African Post-School Education and Training sector in the 25 years between 1994 and 2019 “because no specific targets were set”.

They refer to the 2013 policy document, ‘White Paper for post-school education and training: Building an expanded, effective and integrated post-school system’, which confirmed that articulation within and into higher education remained poor.

“It stated that many universities do not recognise courses taken in other universities in the same field, and sometimes related courses within the same university are not recognised across departments and faculties.”

They assert that the movement between TVET colleges and universities has not been of substance due to the lack of proper mechanisms for articulation.

Referring to research by other scholars, Mabasa and Mahlo explain: “… TVET students use less-defined standards and less well-identified articulation pathways, in larger numbers, without encouragement, advice or assistance, and in the relative absence of formal credit transfer arrangements with universities”.

To address articulation challenges, the higher education system needs to respond comprehensively to the gap between learners’ school achievement and the intellectual demands of higher education programmes.

“Unfortunately, this need has not received sufficient attention,” meaning higher education institutions need to re-examine their strategic plans if they are to meet the educational needs of local communities and the nation.

Reconsidering extended programmes

At an undergraduate level, articulation could be achieved if foundation or extended programmes were reconsidered. Students who have National Senior Certificate (school-leaving) passes but not the grades to access specific higher education programmes, could enrol for appropriate foundation or extended programmes at Higher Certificate level.

On completion, this would enable them to access programmes they did not previously qualify for. “In this way, the foundation programme would be contributing towards addressing the articulation gap.”

It is commonplace for matriculants with NSC passes to flood universities for admission, but this is in vain: there are no options, such as diplomas, for those who do not meet the requirements for admission into bachelor degree programmes.

“Regrettably, foundation or extended curriculum programmes are not popular and not many universities run sufficient numbers of them, and this has slowed down the vision of articulation with the higher education system in South Africa,” argue the authors.

Articulation remains a work in progress in South African higher education as barriers continue to exist between institutions.

Referring to the 2020 work of Ahmed Essop, ‘The changing size and shape of the higher education system in South Africa, 2005-2017’, they indicate that the funding framework encourages all universities to pursue research and postgraduate programmes, thereby making articulation difficult.

This has resulted in some universities, especially those that depend exclusively on state funding, to move away from their mission and vision, especially in the area of teaching. However, despite these challenges, there are encouraging signs of increasing awareness of the need for articulation.

Referring to the National Plan for Higher Education in South Africa (NPHE), the authors indicate that it was an attempt to enhance articulation “which, at that time, was largely cosmetic and uncoordinated …”

The NPHE wanted articulation to be institutionalised, with prescriptions to counter the requests of institutional identities based on the past system. “…(I)nstitutions were not supposed to depend only on their own whims and fancies, existing as islands with no connection to others, but rather to follow certain prescribed pathways”.

They also refer to a 2013 report by the Ministerial Committee on Articulation which found that the system “was riddled with conceptual and systemic challenges and absurdities”.

This shows itself in the disorganised provision of education and training; insufficient responsiveness to the socio-economic context of the country; and “lack of proper student progression pathways and articulation provisions; the registration of a plethora of qualifications on the NQF that were regarded as ‘dead-ends’ (and) a lack of coherence between the NQF sub-frameworks and poor articulation arrangements between different programmes and institutions”.

The authors point out that articulation occurs within the three NQF sub-frameworks and across them. “Not much progress has been made because no pathways have been conceptualised between vocationally-oriented programmes and academic programmes.”

Furthermore, the policies and guidelines developed assumed a level playing field. For example, with regard to classroom assessment techniques, policymakers ignored the fact that universities and TVET colleges have different purposes.

Universities are more focused on knowledge creation, whereas TVET colleges are focused on technical and practical skills for the economy.

“This resulted in students failing to find modules or courses that were the same as those accumulated from their former institutions, causing much consternation among students.”

‘Apparent lack of interest in implementation’

It appears that policies and guidelines have not been taken seriously by some universities because it has been difficult to implement them. “This apparent lack of interest in implementation is a huge impediment for articulation.”

The authors point out that it is disappointing that, 25 years into democracy, some qualifications from the universities of technology are not recognised by traditional universities.

Historically white universities (HWU) are perceived as superior to historically black (HBU) ones in terms of quality of research. “This makes the movement of black students between HWUs and HBUs arduous, and this also affects collaboration between universities.”

The same sentiment is prevalent in the relationship between TVET colleges and universities. Governance may also impede articulation, as in the case of inflexible rules and regulations of an institution.

Themane, Mabasa and Mahlo call on DHET to develop indicators and set targets that will enable universities to assess their progress regarding articulation as these do not exist.

The setting of targets was omitted in the Education White Paper 3 and the NPHE as “the matter of articulation should be the business of individual institutions”.

“It is important that this position is changed and that, going forward, the government regulates it.”

They recommend that regulations developed and implemented by the government could provide guidelines that promote transparency and accountability regarding progress. This will also provide institutions with a framework within which they can operate and cooperate.

However, more work is still to be undertaken in terms of promoting articulation to increase the scale that it is being implemented. This requires strong leadership and the political will to see articulation succeed.

The policy and guidelines on articulation need to be further strengthened and upscaled throughout the entire system. This could help institutions to develop effective articulation mechanisms to enable student mobility between undergraduate-focused institutions and institutions offering postgraduate programmes.