A South African game reserve was the unusual venue for a gathering of university principals, who were being briefed about government plans to set up a National Qualifications Framework, a credit-based structure aimed at integrating education and training. The location was entirely appropriate, said one cynic, since hackles were rising.
The briefing was conducted by training expert and ministerial adviser Adrienne Bird, a prime mover behind the Framework. Following newspaper claims that the plan will erode academic autonomy and be opposed by universities, her ideas have been ruffling more feathers.
The concept - of a national framework which integrates education and training, recognises prior credit, sets and links levels of learning, and enables learners to progress to higher levels from any starting point in the education and training system - is old hat elsewhere but new to most in this country.
In fact, many universities welcome the improved access, mobility and opportunity for learners it implies, and include those goals in their missions. But higher education in general is edgy about the idea, and especially about autonomy and the potential powers of the South African Qualifications Authority which will operate the system.
"A National Qualifications Framework will make inroads into autonomy if it is established as envisaged," says Committee of University Principals head, Jos Grobbelaar. "The setting of levels of learning especially has implications for autonomy."
The CUP is compiling a response to a recently gazetted Draft National Qualifications Framework Bill, which universities are unlikely to oppose but which they will want changed. The CUP is also establishing a Quality Promotion Unit which it hopes will leave the setting and maintaining of degree standards entirely in university hands.
Proponents of the framework are equally edgy, confessed Ms Bird at a seminar hosted by the University of Natal's education policy unit recently: "If higher education chooses to reject SAQA the whole idea will crumble.
"Schools will follow the decision of universities and technikons, leaving a framework which would be narrowly defined and applied only to the 70 per cent of people - many of them disadvantaged and destitute - who do not make it into the tertiary system and most need access to alternative routes of learning.
"If we can recognise that learning takes place outside schools, and give it proper credit, these people will not be shut out of the formal system. The challenge to institutions is whether they can cope with such learners."
The main purpose of the draft bill is to set up the authority. The bill is a joint effort by the ministeries of education and labour - which itself was quite an achievement - said Ms Bird, who is also a member of the interministerial task group and of the National Commission on Higher Education.
It is hoped that the bill will pass through parliament by September, and that SAQA will be established by the end of the year. At that point it will begin consultations with education stakeholders aimed at developing and implementing a qualifications framework.
A central feature of the framework will be eight levels of learning. Level one encompasses nine years of compulsory schooling and adult basic education and training courses leading to a General Education Certificate.
Levels two to five encompass courses leading to a Further Education Certificate - three years of optional secondary schooling and further education courses - level five leads to an advanced certificate, level six to a degree, level seven to a professional qualification, and level eight to a masters or doctorate.
The legislation gives SAQA two main functions. It will register groups in society who come together to define learning outcomes at different levels, and will register standard setting bodies made up of experts in the various study fields.
To ensure that standards registered are delivered to learners, SAQA will accredit subordinate bodies - to be called education and training quality auditors - which will act on its behalf to ensure standards are met. Institutions such as universities will be able to become auditors - and undoubtedly will to protect their autonomy.
It will not be obligatory for courses to be registered with SAQA, but those that are not will obviously not be able to offer learners guarantees of recognition.
"It is not news that we have very uneven quality in education and training in South Africa. The first and essential purpose of a national qualifications framework is to enhance the quality of education and training," said Ms Bird.
A deeper purpose is to encourage a change in the South African learning experience from one of rote learning to one which emphasises problem solving, communication and information gathering.The framework could contribute to that by requiring those objectives to be explicit in the learning outcomes written into courses.
Uneven standards occur between universities, as much as between them and other kinds of institutions, and one concern is that national degree standards set will be lower than those offered by "good" universities.
However, Ms Bird argues, it will be possible to have two kinds of degrees: one which is a national degree and another which is "better than national".
"It is possible to set basic standards, and the market can improve on that," she says.
"Although a lot of thought has clearly gone into the idea of a framework nobody is dead clear about how it is going to work. There is still going to be a lot of consultation and the result will have to be a societal outcome."