The rationale for reviewing mergers

The reconfiguration of the country’s higher education landscape, which commenced with mergers and incorporations five years ago, has resulted in topical discourse on challenges to which the merger processes have given rise.

Commentary on mergers has largely focused on student protests and a perceived ‘drop” in standards owing to the mergers, among other elements.

However, it is prudent that analysis of the mergers should take into consideration their objectives. In 2001, as part of the transformational agenda for higher education, then-minister of education Kader Asmal announced the national plan for higher education in terms of which a need was identified to restructure the institutional landscape of the higher education system in South Africa.

One of the key mechanisms employed for this purpose was to merge some of the higher education institutions. The national plan identified the following priorities as key to the achievement of the restructuring process:

  • To reduce duplication and overlap in programme and service provision;

  • To promote the joint development and delivery of programmes;

  • To enhance responsiveness to regional and national needs for academic programmes, research and community service;

  • To refocus build academic and administrative capacity; and

  • Refocus and reshape the institutional culture and missions of the institutions as South African institutions.

The Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), born in 2004 out of a merger of the formerly black Technikon Northern Gauteng and Technikon North West with the formerly white Technikon Pretoria, has identified a need to host a conference to provide an opportunity for a mid-term evaluation of the progress made with the mergers. The aim is also to assess its potential to achieve the transformation objectives at systemic and institutional levels.

The higher education strategic issues have to be understood within the context of the White Paper III, which provides a framework within which the South African higher education system needs to operate.

As such, the key challenges facing the South African higher education system remain as outlined in the White Paper: ‘To redress past inequalities and to transform the higher education system to serve a new social order, to meet pressing national needs, and to respond to new realities and opportunities” (White Paper: 1.1).

Quality promotion
At an institutional level, and in support of transformation TUT acknowledged challenges posed by the merger and implemented a strategy to face those challenges. Taking cognisance of all role-players affected by the merger, transparency was a priority.

The university decided to open itself up for public scrutiny. A voluntary self-assessment and a quality audit by the Council on Higher Education were the points of departure towards addressing merger-related issues.

The end results were commendations and recommendations, which we continue to address through a quality-improvement plan. This was also done to ensure that we produce graduates needed for social and economic development in the country.

Graduates for social and economic development
The increasing importance of sophisticated skills and human resources for social and economic development in a knowledge-driven world requires that planning for the higher education system allows for significant expansion.

Therefore our system must ensure increased participation rates, increased graduate outputs, broadened social base of students, diversified enrolments and, within that, the enhancement of the cognitive skills of our graduates.

Retention and graduation rates
There is concern about the significant decrease in retention and graduation rates, given the need for our system to produce more skilled individuals. This poses another problem for the sector: to ensure that growth in numbers of enrolments is in line with growth in numbers of graduates.

Our failure to manage this will result in a huge waste of resources, both financial and human. A student drop-out rate of 20% implies that about R1,3-billion in government subsidies is spent each year on students who do not complete their study programmes.

Fields of study
For years, especially during the apartheid regime, the sector was skewed towards the humanities, mainly because opportunities in business, management, science, engineering and technology were limited to whites.

In the late 1990s there was a significant change in enrolments from the humanities to business and commerce.

Unfortunately, enrolments in science, engineering and technology have remained constant. The higher education sector, in line with the proposal in the national plan for higher education, needs to alter the enrolment patterns dramatically.

It is also expected that the share which vocational qualifications have of the total enrolment figures should not be permitted to drop as a result of an ‘academic drift” towards general undergraduate degree studies.

While I spoke about increasing student participation rates, it is important to note that we should also focus on the composition of the student body in order to transform the system.

There is an imperative to address the inequalities of the past and to eradicate all forms of unfair discrimination in relation to access and equality of opportunity within higher education for historically and socially disadvantaged groups.

Higher education needs to have in place mechanisms to ensure increased access and success of black and women students.

From technikon to university
Historically, technikons were considered ‘glorified high schools” lacking qualified staff and proper infrastructure. Now that they are universities of technology, significant resources are required to build capacity at staff level to attain higher degrees and refocus on applied research.

The merger conference offers an opportunity to reflect on the past five years’ developments in relation to the rationale for the transformation of higher education.

Errol Tyobeka is vice-chancellor of the Tshwane University of Technology, which will host the Conference on Mergers

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