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Differentiation cannot work with one-size-fits-all approach

The department of higher education and training released its Proposal on a Way Forward with Regard to Differentiation in September for comment among higher-education institutions.

The document is the department's attempt to give expression to the recommendations of the 2010 higher-education summit. Although one can appreciate the department's intention, the fact that this document has come up for consultation at a time when Higher Education South Africa, the vice-chancellors' representative body, has been working on concrete proposals to take differentiation further makes it look as though the department is undercutting this work in progress.

But leaving aside the weak collaboration between the ministry, the department and the public higher-education sector, the department's proposal itself needs to be judged at three levels: as policy, as a conceptualisation of differentiation and as a proposed methodology to implement differentiation.

From a policy perspective, anybody with a good memory of the first ­decade of higher-education policymaking under democracy will see that the department's proposal presents an oversimplified version of the policy debate on differentiation that preceded and followed the 2000 Council on Higher Education "size and shape" document. It is also an overgeneralisation of the outcome of mergers and it disregards the successful outcomes of some mergers and the conditions under which these were possible and the role that politics played in the approval, rejection or modification by the government of the Council on Higher Education and the national working group proposals more than a decade ago.

The department's proposal offers no evidence of an analysis of current policy implementation and impact. Thus there is no mention in the document of the department's poor utilisation of the three steering mechanisms available to it: planning, funding and quality assurance. This is particularly true in the case of quality assurance, which is conspicuously absent in the department's argument about differentiation.

Even more worrying is the absence of a critique of the programme and qualification mix exercise initiated in the early 2000s and its consequences, especially because the steering instrument is controlled by the department itself, which approved the programme and qualification mix of institutions. It is this approval that has enabled institutions to receive government funding.

This has been the government tool to manage and control the academic drift the department seems to find in the sector. If there is academic drift, it has been allowed through the programme and qualification mix process of approval. Instead of reflecting what is not working in this process, the department's proposal signals the higher education qualifications framework as problematic.

But like all qualifications frameworks, this one does not prescribe which institutions offer what qualifications. It follows that academic drift cannot be pinned down to policy, but to the manner in which institutions plan their academic offerings and their enrolments and the manner in which the department is using the steering mechanisms at its disposal.

Yet there is in the proposal a ­fundamental lack of assessment of policy implementation, such as its failures and contradictions, which can be traced back directly to the government bureaucracy.

Finally, the proposal is silent about the available empirical evidence on existing differentiation prepared by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation and what this means in terms of both policy outcomes and the bases for further differentiation.

In terms of the conceptualisation of differentiation underpinning the document, one can easily agree with the department that differentiation is a means to an end. In this case, it is necessary to reassess what the problem is to which differentiation is the answer.

The stated purpose of differentiation in the proposal is "to ensure the meaningful and sustainable role of the historically black institutions located in the former bantustans which takes into account their history, the particular academic and development needs of their regions and the institutional ambitions for development".

But this is problematic both methodologically and conceptually. At a methodological level, it does not seem appropriate to look into the differentiation of the whole of the higher education system to ensure the sustainability of some institutions, whose problems are more often than not intertwined with fundamental socioeconomic and political developmental challenges in their regions.

In this regard, it is of great concern that the department seems to have come to the conclusion that nothing has changed in 18 years in relation to these institutions. If the point of departure of an intervention is not a complex understanding of the state of the universities in South Africa, it will not have any chance of having a serious impact.

Conceptually, the proposal suggests that differentiation will be an open-ended process in which some institutions will develop. In this context, development is regarded as a progression within an existing hierarchy at the top of which is the gold standard of the world-class, research-intensive university. This approach defeats the purpose of the whole exercise, because the outcome of the differentiation trajectory can only be variations on a homogenous system. In this sense, the department's proposal lacks conceptual clarity on the difference between redress and development.

Equally concerning is the absence in the proposal of both a notion of excellence applicable to different types of institutions and the idea of the world-class, research-intensive university in which most countries want to invest. The same can be said of the lack of focus on institutions specialised and excellent in undergraduate education. Although the document indicates that the greatest differentiation now is within existing institutional types and refers to a continuum of institutions, it fails to indicate that the continuum can take place within one institutional type; in other words, a university of technology can be research-intensive within its type, whereas a university can specialise in undergraduate liberal education.

This is unsurprising, given that the department's proposal does not take as its point of departure the state of the differentiation debate internationally or recognise the existence of different models of differentiation around the world. Instead, the proposed methodology for this new round of differentiation consists of launching all institutions into a review or confirmation, or changing their mandate and mission through scenario-planning, taking into account the needs for development and the interface with the post-school and training system.

According to the proposal, this exercise will be sped up by the department's appointment of teams of "facilitators" to ensure a common approach that will be decided between the facilitators and the department. This will be followed by the setting up of a "differentiation task team" made up of experts and department officials who will engage institutions individually. The outcome of this engagement will require the minister's approval.

There are a number of problems with this methodology. First, it assumes that no South African university is capable of planning for itself. This is clearly not the case, because a good number of universities of all institutional types, including "ex-homeland universities", have provided ample evidence of both capacity and determination in the pursuit of their missions.

Second, it assumes that the best way of addressing the lack of capacity for planning and implementation at some institutions will be the creation of teams of facilitators, who no doubt will come out of the very reduced number of local higher education specialists with sufficient direct experience of higher-education management to be able to help. If this is not the case, the department should be advised against employing consultants without direct knowledge of higher education and should be reminded of its own capacity problems in this undertaking.

Third, the proposal assumes that there are no existing indicators with which to analyse differentiation institutionally, regionally and nationally. This is clearly not the case. The methodology is available, as are most of the necessary indicators. The Centre for Higher Education Transformation has done significant work in this area.

Fourth, there is no indication of how the regional and national components of the system will be taken into account to provide some level of coherence to the task.

Fifth, the whole exercise will be based first on facilitators and then on a task team, all appointed and supported by department officials. Given that the object of the differentiation process is to decide on the orientation that universities will have in relation to teaching and learning (academic profile) and research, this is an undertaking that goes beyond the functions of the government, even in relation to public higher education, particularly when the fundamental identity (or mission) of institutions will not be altered and has already been decided by the government.

Finally, there is no clarity about whether the department will secure the budget that will be necessary to resource institutions' different scenarios for the process to be successful, nor is there any indication of the criteria and evidence that will be used in the prioritisation of funding allocation (given, for example, the investment planned in creating two new universities). Just as concerning is that other relevant government departments, such as the department of science and technology, do not seem to have been taken into account or regarded as having an important stake in this process, not to mention that there are no guarantees that principles and realism and not political opportunism are going to be privileged in undertaking this exercise.

Of course, there are alternative approaches. Using the Centre for Higher Education Transformation's work on "existing differentiation" as a point of departure that might help to prioritise what and how to differentiate is one idea. Asking the Council on Higher Education's quality committee to produce a set of evidence-based indicators of quality that will help to complete the Centre for Higher Education Transformation's quantitative input and output indicators might also help.

Thinking of differentiation contextually, that is, considering the size of the population, current and envisaged higher-education participation, the difficulties of the schooling system, the availability of human and financial resources and the socio-economic reality of the different provinces would help too.

Differentiation should avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. It is clear that although some institutions are firmly defined in their missions and visions and clearly fit for purpose, others are not in the same position. Institutions should be given the option of requesting additional support from the department if they feel they do not have sufficient internal resources to plan.

The department should come to the realisation, as many universities have, that academic and enrolment planning are two sides of the same coin and therefore regard plans for differentiation as part of a comprehensive planning exercise conceived as an extension of enrolment planning. The department might want to consider asking for information and support from the higher education quality committee in relation to the assessment of the outcomes of accreditation and institutional audits and their relation to new proposals.

It would also be good if, based on agreed-upon plans to achieve quality and excellence in a particular mission, the department and each institution would sign a performance contract stating both parties' commitments over an appropriate period of time, including reviews and assessment. Despite many drawbacks, the South African higher education system has made considerable progress since 1994. There is still much to be done for our universities to meet the goals set out in the 1997 white paper three and every effort to achieve them must be supported.

With the best intentions and considerable investment of human resources, the government led a process of differentiation through the creation of three institutional types and the restructuring of institutions in the previous decade, starting when Kader Asmal was education minister. With much more preparation, research and steering capacity on the part of the state, the outcomes of this exercise have been uneven. We need greater conceptual clarity in the debate and reassurance that different institutional paths will be appropriately supported so that the South African higher education system will be able to respond equally well to its international aspirations and to local demands for development.

Dr Lis Lange is senior director of the directorate for institutional research and academic planning at the University of the Free State

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Lis Lange
Music Teacher, Doctoral Ed.D Student Lis Lange has over 80 followers on Twitter.

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