A national treasure?

For better or worse, come January 2005, South Africa’s higher education landscape will be so altered as to be unrecognisable. Some institutions will have vanished, others will be merged and rebranded, and a new breed of mega-varsities called comprehensives will have been established.

Higher education will be rendered almost incomprehensible — especially for those on the outside of the sector — given the baffling array of institutional forms, name changes and revamped missions.

In all the planning that has emerged from the Department of Education since the ‘size and shape” document — the subsequent work of the task team and the finalising of the mergers — there has been little thought of its strategic import.
Will it provide for a better quality system of higher education? Will we have the capacity to respond to the knowledge and skills challenge of South Africa? Will our students be better off?

To be certain, we will know the new system’s size, shape, funding mechanisms, regulatory norms and policy features. But the debate on higher education has to shift gear from restructuring to development.

The sector must ‘gear up” to tackle the historic challenges of creating new knowledge and skills needed to modernise our economy, eliminate poverty, create employment, build a vibrant civil society and an effective public sector. As ‘merger mania” is fast coming to an end, we need to look outside of the sector and into what society needs from us. Ever since the education White Paper in 1997, the focus of policy has been firmly on the transformation of the sector, and rightly so. However, transformation — as a term — has been used as a rallying call as much as it has a big stick. As vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town Njabulo Ndebele recently put it: ‘An institution declared ‘untransformed’ could lead to a damning crisis of legitimacy.”

Perhaps, more importantly, ‘transformation” has functioned as a catchphrase that has tried to rectify all the evils the apartheid legacy had built over the years. And because of immense damage that it has had to undo, transformation in the post-apartheid context has been retrospective. It has become a transformation from rather than into.

As a result, the White Paper and, later, the National Plan for Higher Education became a numbers game that sought to achieve redress, equity and responsiveness to socio-economic imperatives by setting targets for student access, staff profiles and even the number of institutions.

The education department’s recent rethink on the issue of access is a case in point. A transformation agenda that is ontologically concerned with fixing a system is hardly able to focus on predicting outcomes or imagining future scenarios.

We have not yet achieved a sufficient degree of systemic connectedness despite 10 years of reform.

The mergers have caused a great deal of instability, uncertainty and even self-absorption. Ironically, however, the mergers might just produce the kind of system South Africa needs — not because of the original rationale for mergers (to achieve equality and regional integration) but because of the shock these have caused the system, making it necessary to re-establish unity within higher education so that it can reassert itself as a national treasure.

Although at present it may appear impossible to imagine what the post-merger landscape will look like, this fascination will pass much faster than expected. The question is, once the mergers are complete in 2005, what then? Five comprehensives, 11 universities, five universities of technology and two national institutes of higher education. This new configuration will not add up to a nationally coordinated system any more than the original 35 institutions did if there is no commitment within each institution to an invigorated higher education. What this requires is that, separately and collectively, institutions shift gear; that they transform into something society needs and values.

In other words, there is a real opportunity for higher education to build an agenda based firmly on engagement with the society, the economy and the state. This, for me, is our next challenge. It will require a forward-looking transformation that reshapes the nexus between higher education and society.

The underlying concern that runs through the policy-making of the past decade has been the attempt to balance two competing thrusts: to redress past inequality while at the same ensuring that the sector can compete in an increasingly unforgiving international arena.

Like the ever-widening digital divide that tends to marginalise developing countries from the global economy, there is a real threat that a transformed higher education can find itself de-linked from global higher-education activities. The same applies to many other sectors within our economy. It is important that South African higher education strives to compete internationally as a producer of world-class research, and as a preferred destination for students and academics (especially within the Southern African Development Community region) because higher education is both the site for the production of social capital for the nation as well as a crucial empowering force for the future. An understanding of higher education’s position within the local and global economies must be matched with a reconceptualisation of its place vis-à-vis the state.

Even with the mergers that are taking place this year, there are signs of a shift in the landscape — one that sees the education department negotiating with institutions over the shared problems of increased access, the development of the further education and training certificate, limited funds available from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and the finalisation of the National Qualifications Framework.

This kind of state/sector engagement originates from a post-merger understanding that we are all in this together, and that both the state and the sector essentially want the same thing: a responsive, equitable and efficient system offering a high-quality education. To create this alignment, we have to move beyond a solid connectivity between the state and sector on shared issues.

For higher education to achieve substantial transformation, it must go beyond establishing connectivities — whether with the state, business, donors and the like — and focus on creating trajectories.

These flows need to establish linkages that connect students entering higher education: the graduates that leave; the needs of the departments of education, labour, science and technology; research and development targets; and social cohesion and justice goals.

There is still insufficient connectivity between states sectors, national priorities and development objectives. If higher education can achieve a transformation into a kind of enabling body that can facilitate these flows, it will, indeed, achieve its status as a national treasure.—Piyushi Kotecha is CEO of the South African Universities Vice-Chancellors Association

This article was extracted from Beyond Matric—a Mail & Guardian supplement