The British government risks trampling on academic freedoms and university autonomy as it attempts to reform higher education, a visiting South African vice-chancellor has warned.
Barney Pityana, vice-chancellor of the University of South Africa (Unisa) - the equivalent of the Open University - has warned that attempts to force universities to play to their strengths by, among other things, further concentrating research funding, threaten to undermine the fundamental purpose of a university.
Professor Pityana, who was in London last week to meet UK-based alumni and students of Unisa, said that the South African government was trying to do the same by using teaching and research funding to create a tier of top research universities, a tier of teaching and research institutions and a tier of teaching-only organisations.
He said: "I value academic freedom and institutional autonomy and I really do worry, certainly in the case of the UK, which seems to have gone a little further than South Africa in terms of intervention. It is very difficult for us in universities to deal with this as many of us may agree with what our governments want to achieve but not the way they are going about it."
The governments of both the UK and South Africa are keen to widen higher education participation among people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Both want to increase the emphasis on teaching and are offering financial incentives to do so.
But the corollary of this is that while some universities will be encouraged to concentrate on teaching, and will welcome the additional money for doing so, this will take place at the expense of their ability to carry out pure research. This is unpalatable to many academics who, apart from the potential blight on their careers, believe there is an inherent link between research activity and teaching quality.
In addition, the financial benefits to an institution with a lot of top-rated research are far greater than the financial benefits of widening participation among disadvantaged groups.
Professor Pityana said that his country's access agenda differs from that of the UK because of the legacy of apartheid. This means that in South Africa any tier of teaching-only universities would almost certainly be composed of the former black-only universities, and the research elites would be predominantly former white-only institutions.
More than half of Unisa's graduates are black women, and many students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many other former black-only institutions educate people from similar backgrounds, making them key to South Africa's future economic and social development after years of apartheid.
The higher education participation rate in South Africa is 15 per cent and the plan is to increase this to between 20 and 25 per cent within ten years. In the UK at present, more than a third of 18 to 21-year-olds go to university and more than two-fifths of 18 to 30-year-olds enter higher education. The plan is to raise the latter proportion to 50 per cent by 2010.
"Socially, the purpose we serve at Unisa is enormous. We are not trying to be an elite university," Professor Pityana said. "But the government is now coming through the back door with funding proposals focusing on access to universities and we are being asked to extend access and show how our students are succeeding.
"The effect of this is that the funding of historically black universities will decrease and the funding for historically white universities will increase."
He believes the same risks apply in the UK where the universities doing most to widen participation are hit financially by being both frozen out of research and insufficiently compensated for recruiting more students who, because of their backgrounds, may require more intensive help in the early part of their courses in order to stop them dropping out.
Unisa, which offers online and correspondence degrees backed by tutorial support, currently has 140,000 enrolled students including about 7,000 from other African countries.
Professor Pityana said Unisa had a bigger role to play in offering higher education to people across Africa because wars, financial problems and an exodus of many academics from the continent had undermined the university systems of many states.