Higher education transformation tops the agenda

Dr Jeffrey Mabelebele, former HESA chief executive, Dr Abbey Mathekga, former senior manager of HSA's matriculation board, with South African Union of Students executive committee members Mlamli Ngowapi, Thabo Moloja and Tebogo Thothetla

Dr Jeffrey Mabelebele, former HESA chief executive, Dr Abbey Mathekga, former senior manager of HSA's matriculation board, with South African Union of Students executive committee members Mlamli Ngowapi, Thabo Moloja and Tebogo Thothetla

This will be driven through Universities South Africa, the body that represents the interests of the country’s higher education institutions. It is not a new role for the organisation formerly known as Higher Education South Africa (HESA), but the name change does signify a fundamental change in approach and scope.

Universities South Africa Chairperson Professor Adam Habib says that while HESA had quite successfully lobbied on key issues over the past decade, the emphasis had tended to be on representing the interests of institutions rather than the broader constituency. 

“There is a desire to understand what is required by the sector, then to provide and marshall leadership for all individual institutions so we can focus on our collective agendas.”

Looking at higher education sectoral agencies, he says the interests of the chairs of council, vice-chancellors, registrars and academics will be better represented, but not at the expense of the student body.

The Rhodes Must Fall protest movement that rocked the University of Cape Town earlier this year points to lingering discontent about the pace of transformation and perceived exclusivity of universities.

“I think it is absolutely within our mandate to bring together students, vice-chancellors and unions to have a collective conversation around transformation. It is a role it should be playing and the fact that it hasn’t is what we need to change,” he says.

Universities South Africa’s approach and scope for its lobbying activities have been laid out in its 2015-2019 strategic framework, which includes three broad goals. 

The first relates to informing and influencing the future policy agenda as determined by the government in a manner that contributes to the wellbeing of member institutions. This touches on both the policy and regulatory frameworks withinwhich universities operate, as well as critical issues around funding and investment required for a long-term, sustainable and internationally competitive higher education system.

Allied to this goal is the aim to step up Universities South Africa’s engagements with Parliament’s portfolio committees on matters that have implications for the university sector. 

The final lobbying goal focuses on developing and contributing to policy positions that impact on teaching and learning, research and community engagement activities. 

To achieve these goals, Universities South Africa has identified the need to support the government to develop and implement a National Higher Education Plan in the next two years. The aim is to develop a macro plan for a post-school education and training system that will help to shape a compact between universities and the state.

It is envisaged that such a plan will address strategies to improve student access, opportunity and success, build the next generation of academics, mobilise state funding for universities, improve postgraduate student outputs, improve academic infrastructure, promote transformation and introduce differentiation and diversity.

One of the ways it hopes to build closer relations and collaboration with government is through the creation of a Higher Education-Government Forum. Universities South Africa will be championing such a forum, which it is proposing should be chaired by either the Deputy President or the Minister of Higher Education and Training.

The aim is to “facilitate an unmediated communication between the government leadership and the leadership of universities”, according to Habib. 

The forum could be used to fashion a social contract between universities, the state and society, to identify joint, catalytic initiatives and to develop targeted, state-funded programmes for research and development. The ultimate aim is to create a platform for universities and the state to engage robustly around the country’s and continent’s knowledge and graduate needs.

It is expected that lobbying and advocacy activities aimed specifically at Parliament can also be used to build more cohesion between state policies and the higher education sector. These activities are also a response to calls for a more active response from the sector to a raft of new regulations and interventions recently announced by government.

Universities South Africa’s strategy document states that the legislative, policy and regulatory environment within which universities operate has witnessed unprecedented changes since 2009. There are concerns that the next phase of university policy will contain even bigger changes as part of government’s “radical socioeconomic transformation” agenda. 

The potential for such changes was illustrated at the beginning of 2012, when increased reporting and accountability requirements were proposed by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) that places an additional administrative burden on universities. Also, a Transformation Oversight Committee was established to advise the minister on policy and strategies for the promotion of transformation, while an annual report on policies and practices impacting on transformation within universities was proposed.

One of Universities South Africa’s proposed interventions is to host an annual seminar with the Higher Education and Training Portfolio Committee to share perspectives on emerging local and international higher education trends, and what the implications are for the local university sector. 

In addition to such a meeting, it has been proposed that a series of round-table discussions with other portfolio committees — such as the Portfolio Committees on Finance, the Standing Committees on Appropriations, Science and Technology, and Trade and Industry — be held to broaden the reach of its lobbying activities.

Universities South Africa’s government engagement strategy is also intended to address the vexing question of developing a differentiation policy framework. In essence, this move is predicated on the acknowledgement that not all universities have the same strengths or capacity and that higher education — and students — would benefit from each institution identifying and playing to its unique strengths.

Critics have said this approach promotes the continued inequality between the country’s better-resourced and poorer universities.

The issue has received considerable attention within HESA, with members adopting a set of principles at a 2012 meeting to underpin a differentiation policy framework. Most of these principles have been included in the DHET’s White Paper on Post-School Education and Training, with the draft policy framework on differentiation released last year for public comment.

Universities South Africa will continue to play an active role in promoting this issue by providing strategic advice to the DHET to finalise the policy framework for implementation.

One of the strategy proposals aimed specifically at the student body is its response to DHET’s proposed Central Application Service (CAS). The organisation says it supports the establishment of CAS in principle, and it will work closely with the DHET to clarify at conceptual and practical levels the key foundational principles for the system. 

In doing so, Universities South Africa intends providing strategic advice and support to the DHET throughout this process, with particular emphasis on issues such as CAS ownership, establishing an appropriate legal and governance structure, its funding model, and its operating and delivery model.