Radical reforms in firing line

April 26, 1996

Jairam Reddy, the mild mannered chair of South Africa's National Commission on Higher Education, flinched as he took flak from a vice chancellor and a student during a national television debate on the commission's just-released report, A Framework for Transformation.

Professor Reddy was under fire for not going far enough with reforms which will, nevertheless, radically change the country's tertiary sector and give the South African government greater say over institutions into which it will this year pour R4.4 billion (Pounds 0.7 billion).

No doubt there will be further heated debate over what must be the most significant higher education development in the country for more than a decade.

The commission recommends, among many other things, a new funding system, a single higher education sector comprising 30 to 40 universities and technikons (polytechnics), college mergers, a single qualifications framework, a higher education quality council and massively expanded further education.

It also proposes a system of higher education governance, unprecedented internationally, called "cooperative governance". It is South Africa's attempt to deal with growing pressure for higher education transformation, and to create collaboration among fiercely competitive interests in a highly volatile sector.

In May members of the commission will travel to Salzburg, Austria, to present their ideas - the result of 15 months of research by five task groups, consultation in South Africa and abroad, and 123 submissions - to the world.

More than 300 higher education "stakeholders" will have first bite of the framework at a conference near Johannesburg this weekend. After a period of consultation, the discussion document will be finalised and presented to education minister Sibusiso Bengu, by the end of July.

"At the heart of modernity is the nation of skills and more responsible participation in the economy," said Professor Reddy at a press conference last week. "That puts higher education in the centre of what is happening in South Africa.

"Ours is a vision that will require expansion of higher education. At the same time we must push for more partnerships in the system, and more responsibility towards the economic needs and development of the country."

The framework contains 49 recommendations, divided into three areas: systems, governance and funding. If the proposals are accepted, higher education in South Africa will be planned, governed and funded as a single coordinated system of 30-40 multi-campus universities and technikons (there are currently 36). Colleges of education, nursing and agriculture - there are more than 100 - will be incorporated in to universities and technikons.

The further education sector, and especially technical education, will be vastly expanded. There are about half a million higher education and only 100,000 technical students in the country. "South Africa must expand the technical sector considerably to take care of the school leaving population," Reddy told The THES. "Ours is an inverted pyramid."

Participation rates will be increased. Only about 15 per cent of South Africans between 20 and 24 years are in higher education. "This problem is compounded by racial inequalities, with 54 per cent of the white population benefiting from post-school training compared to a mere 6 per cent of the African population."

The framework suggests "urgent steps" to tackle the problem of poor student access to institutions caused by the black school system, which fails to prepare children for higher education. Until schools are improved, institutions will be expected to solve the problem with bridging courses.

A "uniform minimum entry requirement" is proposed to further improve access for disadvantaged students: it will no longer be necessary to obtain a matriculation exemption to enter a university or technikon, with institutions encouraged to find alternative procedures to select students with academic potential.

The commission proposes a single qualifications framework for higher education to facilitate student mobility and promote the development of coherent and integrated learning. A Higher Education Quality Council will be set up as an umbrella monitoring body, responsible for institutional auditing, programme accreditation and quality promotion.

On governance, the commission has tried to tread a middle ground between the high level of organisational autonomy enjoyed by higher education institutions and the political interference which has suffocated universities elsewhere on the African continent.

The framework proposes that academic freedom and institutional autonomy over teaching and research be entrenched in the final constitution. The new cooperative governance model will remove a degree of organisational autonomy from institutions but not hand it directly over to the state. Instead, the government will use a new funding formula and other mechanisms to ensure that institutions produce the kinds of graduates the country needs, and to redress racial, gender and educational imbalances.

Autonomy will be centred in two "intermediary" bodies - a Higher Education Forum comprising a wide range of stakeholders and a Higher Education Council made up of experts and government representatives - enabling the sector largely to govern itself.

The role of the forum will be to raise higher education issues and develop strategies for resolving conflict. The more powerful council will advise the education minister and formulate policies.

While the forum will be expected to reach consensus on important issues, the council will use experts within higher education in a way that is not linked to any one stakeholder interest. Government representatives in the council will presumably ensure that national interests are assured.

Other governance recommendations are for a new Higher Education Act, a branch of higher education in the education department, regional advisory bodies, the restructuring of university and technikon councils to incorporate at least 60 per cent of "outside" members, smaller senates which include representatives from faculties, departments, students and managers, institutional forums to advise on restructuring, and student service councils.

Under the new funding arrangement, which follows the Australian model and is to be phased in over at least three years, institutions will be allocated funds to teach set numbers of students in different fields, in line with national graduate and redress needs. Institutions will be free to enrol more students, but will not be funded for them.

Institutions will continue to set tuition fee levels but the Higher Education Council will develop an overall fees policy.

The commission also suggests that the National Financial Aid Scheme, set up this year to provide bursaries and loans to about 70,000 needy students, be extended to include all students in the higher education system.

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