‘Policy entrepreneurs’ acknowledged for HE reform efforts

Higher Education Reform Experts South Africa (HERESA), a three-year pilot that will come to an end in November, was “a success with tangible impact”, project coordinator Dr Sershen Naidoo told University World News at the end of the initiative’s final workshop in Johannesburg from 2-4 October.

“It has contributed to getting higher education in South Africa to a better place by focusing both on individuals and institutions. It capacitated specific people to become agents of change. And it modified and created new teaching and learning strategies, which will now bring about reform,” he said.

HERESA and Erasmus+

HERESA was formed in 2020 by the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA) and OBREAL Global, a development body promoting South-South-North collaboration in higher education and research.

It received a grant from the Erasmus+ capacity-building programme for higher education to build a network similar to Higher Education Reform Experts (HERE) in Europe, established in 2007 to promote the modernisation of higher education in countries surrounding the European Union (EU).

The Erasmus programme was originally established by the EU in 1987. It looked to promote closer cooperation between universities and higher education institutions across Europe. Over time, the programme has expanded in its breadth and depth and is now known as ‘Erasmus+’. Increasingly, it is looking beyond Europe.

This article is published in partnership with the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA) to focus on the Higher Education Reform Experts South Africa (HERESA), a European-Union-funded project including THENSA members. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Erasmus+ capacity-building projects typically focus on one of three main activities: curriculum development, modernisation of governance and management of higher education institutions and systems, and strengthening of relations between higher education and the wider economic and social environment.

The HERESA project took inspiration from the original HERE model, and adapted the approach to the South African context. Implemented in the member universities of THENSA, it aimed to strengthen and revitalise their teaching and learning strategies.

Five themes

HERESA focused specifically on developing novel approaches to work-integrated learning (WIL), entrepreneurship education, competency-based learning and teaching, competencies for the Fourth-Fifth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR-5IR, as well as the leadership to drive the changes needed.

Communities of practice were set up around the themes, and the hope is that these will continue to function and expand as a mechanism to bring about reform.

“One of the greatest achievements of the project is the offshoots created, such as Work-Integrated Learning South Africa, or WILSA, and the Association of Work-Integrated Learning,” Naidoo said.

The former is a network of excellence for WIL that aims to promote research, training capacity-building and good practices in South Africa and the rest of continent. And the latter is an association to professionalise WIL as a practice.

“Something else we can be proud of is that the entrepreneurship education programmes that were developed as a consequence of the project are now being used in an adapted form at our EU partners,” Naidoo added.

Policy impact

Another achievement highlighted at the workshop is the fact that two formal policy briefs were created in the past three years, specifically to have an impact on policy in particular areas. These processes were coordinated by the South African Qualifications Authority, or SAQA, a full member of HERESA.

The first is around WIL, to ensure more effective implementation of the approach across the variety of contexts in which it is applied in South Africa.

The brief has received recognition from the World Council and Assembly on Cooperative Education (WACE) and will now be added to the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) policy suite, based on the approval of the South African Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation.

The second policy brief focuses on NQF Level Descriptors, which have been designed to contribute to coherence in learning achievement and facilitate evaluation criteria for comparability, and thus articulation. The brief will now feed into a national review process.

This process elicited a positive response from higher education bodies elsewhere on the continent. Benard Nashon Otieno of the Association of Technical Universities and Polytechnics in Africa (ATUPA) described HERESA participants as “policy entrepreneurs”.

Virtual café

HERESA also had other successful interventions, including study visits, training and knowledge-sharing workshops and shadowing visits. However, based on workshop participants’ enthusiasm when discussing the HERESA Café, it was the most popular intervention.

“This was one of our best initiatives. Participants would meet virtually over a cup of coffee once a month, and talk about issues of common concern, but in complete confidence. Nothing was recorded.

“They would typically start by blowing off some steam, maybe complaining about their boss a bit, and then switch to inspiring and challenging each other as they share things they managed to achieve or something exciting in their field. It’s a wonderful mechanism, and everyone wants it to continue,” Naidoo said.

“It ties in with the fact that, in HERESA overall, institutions and individuals were brave enough to say we are not good at this or that, but we want to get better, so let’s help each other,” he added.

Institutional mentorship

“What HERESA has done was to establish a model of institutional mentorship, which has been tremendously rewarding, particularly in curriculum development, teaching and learning, as well as strategy development.

“The project brought a part of the higher education ecosystem together to develop a community of trust for shared learning and shared impact, which can now be expanded,” Naidoo said.

When the project was launched three years ago, the idea was that the pilot could eventually be extended to all higher education institutions in the sector and further afield to other countries in Africa. At the concluding workshop in Johannesburg, specific proposals to continue the momentum brought about by HERESA were discussed.

“An outcomes paper will now be drafted, which must first go to our board for approval, so we can’t talk specifics yet, but what I can say is that there is consensus on rolling out the model, in a slightly modified form, into the rest of the SADC [Southern African Development Community] to prioritise regional interests,” Naidoo said.

Nodumo Dhlamini of the Association of African Universities (AAU) said there was a role for a structure such as HERESA because, “higher education is a huge space and we need many players to collaborate”.

At the start of the workshop, Naidoo said: “We are at the stage where the baby is ready to walk.” Referring back to these words in his closing remarks, Professor Henk de Jager, the acting CEO of THENSA, said: “I believe the baby will graduate with a PhD in a couple of years to come.”