Talking about the privates: What about an integrated system?

Given its time horizon, the South African government’s National Development Plan 2030 (NDP) is an idiosyncratic document. Some of its targets have become increasingly unrealistic as we approach the due date. Still, in many government policies and publications, it remains the go-to mantra. Probably because President Cyril Ramaphosa has been the chair since 2014.

The Medium-Term Strategic Framework 2019-2024, which is the roadmap towards the NDP, exhorts explicitly the shaping of the budget to the NDP goals.

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) sets an enrolment target of 1.62 million students in universities by 2030, of which there are 1,068,046 in the system, according to DHET’s report, Statistics On Post-School Education And Training In South Africa: 2021. To reach its target, it will need the assistance of the 232,915 students currently enrolled in Private Higher Education Institutions (PHEI).

But, last year’s policy, the Draft policy for recognising South African higher education institutional types, has been very unclear whether the DHET understands the role that PHEIs can play, not just in achieving the numbers, but in achieving something that the system as a whole has struggled to achieve: the creation of a diversified system. Addressed at the three institutional types – higher education colleges, university colleges and universities – the draft policy confuses public and private mandates throughout the document.

Even though all PHEIs have to meet the same criteria as public universities, determined by the Council on Higher Education (CHE) and Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC), they have another noteworthy fact, given that they are constantly providing niche and specialised courses across their 137 registered institutions.

Areas like advertising, film school and fashion are traditional areas for PHEIs that, recently, public institutions have begun to touch on, albeit more theoretically than teaching the actual skills needed. So why has the draft policy decidedly kicked the can down the road?

Once upon a time

Like so much that shapes this country, the story starts a long time ago, in 2005. It was during the height of the South African higher education merger process, and all affected higher education institutions were jostling for positions as this new impossible sector was cobbled together.

However, in 2003, while the merger process was (essentially) being contested by several institutions that had to merge, the Committee of Technikon Principals – the heads of the technikons – produced an input for the minister at the time, Professor Kader Asmal, entitled ‘Change in the Name for the Technikons in South Africa’.

The paper argued vociferously that the then technikons be renamed ‘universities of technology’ (UoT). Because they were awarding degrees, they couldn’t understand why they did not appropriate the university’s name.

However, with their focus on technical training, very little research was undertaken (this has changed over the past 20 years). Still, the paper’s underlying argument was about the prestige of being called a university.

As higher education experts Sioux McKenna and Paulette Powell put it in an article, ‘Only a name change: The move from Technikon to the University of Technology’: “Throughout the process of appealing for the name change, the focus was on the inappropriateness of ‘Technikon’ as a title for career-focused institutions, and the elevation in status and perception that would transpire as a result of the name change. It seems, therefore, that, aside from issues of perception and ‘raised status’, there were no other significant reasons given for the proposed change.”

But, in the merger chaos of 2005, the University of Technology was unobtrusively born (see Government Gazette 26191). There was no policy rationalising the new naming convention. It was simply passed into law in the space of a short paragraph:

“I, Professor Kader Asmal, MP, Minister of Education, under the powers vested in me by section 65 of the Higher Education Act, 1997 (Act No. 101 of 1997), as amended, hereby determine that the Technikon Free State shall, with effect from the publication of this notice, be known as the ‘Central University of Technology, Free State’.”

Unintended consequence

In retrospect, what happened next was to be expected. Gradually these newly minted UoTs manifested, what was then known as academic drift, or what the White Paper 3 and, ironically, the draft policy calls “homogenising pressures”.

The implication in the new draft policy seems to be that acknowledging the PHEIs as comparable with the public’s nomenclature, PHEIs would attempt to emulate the public institutions in ways that do not meet the need for a diverse but aligned higher education sector.

That is hardly the case with PHEIs openly known for the diversity of courses and programmes on offer. Their intention has always been to anticipate future and emerging fields and offer these courses to students after being accredited through the Council on Higher Education. If anything, PHEIs are trying to prepare students for a mutable future.

Although public universities cannot fully accommodate the influx of students arriving each year, policy dictates that those students who cannot be placed in the limited places available must find another path to higher education.

Those students whose guardians earn less than R350,000 per annum still cannot qualify for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), (the government’s bursary scheme for poor students) if they dare to enter private higher education. Public, yes, Private no. The so-called ‘missing middle’ (earning above R350,000 a year or R29,000 a month) comprises the middle-class, tax-paying residents who can’t obtain a place in the university and generally turn to the PHEIs. The PHEIs offer loans, bursaries, comparable costs and other funding sources to lessen the burden on students. The state offers nothing.

Almost, not nothing

In the days of the late Professor Asmal, the minister of education from 1999-2004, one could consider his decision-making retrospectively pointless – reducing the number of institutions only to have them expand again afterwards – but he and his team were meticulous policymakers.

Well-researched, backed by evidence, emphatic. However, the Draft policy for recognising South African higher education institutional types is the opposite. It would, among other contradictions, have all private universities contain the name ‘Private’: “A private higher education institution shall be registered with the words ‘private higher education college’; ‘private university college’, or ‘private university’ appearing in its name.”

So, there would be the Private University of Monash. But, of course, the opposite would apply. Can you imagine the brand damage to UCT becoming the Public University of Cape Town or PUCT? Or, for that matter, PUS or PUJ?

It’s not only nomenclature at stake, but also a dire conflation of the private and public. The policy implication is that a public university, say the University of KwaZulu-Natal, would oversee and mentor a private college and decide what courses are acceptable over a five-year period (see 8.1). Imagine the competing interests, the homogenisation of the course offerings and the infringement on the private institution’s ability to compete in the market?

It gets worse.

The draft policy ends by referring to a series of Annexures detailing the application to be a higher education college, a university college and a university with a conversion process and appeals process. They were never published and still haven’t been, a year later. What is contained in these invisible annexures would, at least, shape the context of the policy and its meaning.

Calling a spade

So, what should happen? It is high time for the DHET to review nomenclatures and designations and acknowledge PHEIs according to their existing mandates. If an institution is performing the work of a university, then call it as such. Teaching, research, and even community engagement can be monitored via site visits, annual reports and the reporting systems that are already in place.

PHEIs have no institutional autonomy and no support from the DHET. They are beholden to their benefactors and stakeholders. They are governed via their compliance with the King Code IV and, in some cases, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The CEO is answerable to the board, not a council that other factors may sway, as Nita Lawton-Misra et al point out in painful detail in (A Registrar’s Handbook):

The governance challenges stemmed from, among other things: inexperience and a lack of required expertise among some council members; fraught relationships between councils, executive management and members of staff; a failure of leadership, especially at the level of Chairpersons of Councils; failure of members to execute a fiduciary duty; unethical conduct by some council members; and non-adherence to proper meeting procedures.

If the DHET could also remove the censure placed on poor students attending PHEIs (mainly because they can’t access public universities) and give them NSFAS funding access, it would be a crucial step to create one integrated, transparent university system, collectively focused on building the workforce of the future. The point of any policy is to inform and transform. This is their chance.

Dr Linda Meyer, is the managing director of the IIE Rosebank College, a private institution with 25,000 students across South Africa.