Support for a national system for monitoring academic standards was strong among senior South African higher education managers at a Cape Town conference recently.
Most of the 118 delegates to the pan-South African conference were vice chancellors and rectors or their deputies, with other key figures drawn from industry and commerce and government departments. The focus was strategic planning and the management of change in higher education.
Thirty-four institutions were represented, usually by teams of senior colleagues, and covered the full range of historically black and historically white, English and Afrikaans-speaking universities, technikons and colleges from all parts of the country. It was the first time that such a group had ever been brought together to debate strategic and management issues.
In many respects the challenges facing South African higher education have parallels with the recent experiences of the United Kingdom - the need to produce greatly increased numbers of graduates; to widen the subject base and expand the provision for vocational qualifications; to open up access and progression routes; and to do all this in a climate of diminishing unit costs, and without loss of quality.
The country is tackling a range of other difficulties associated both with opening up equality of opportunity and dealing with student agitation, within its multiple traditions of higher education.
The conference was organised by De Montfort University at the request of many organisations in South Africa, who believe that the development of British higher education over the past few years provides a body of experience upon which they can draw. De Montfort's approach to corporate executive management exemplified by its model of governance was used as a case study.
Since all these autonomous bodies are comparatively well resourced, and are keen to maintain and reinforce their independent governance, the view that a national academic benchmark is necessary is perhaps an unlikely consensus. Eagerness for external academic monitoring is rooted in the current economic and political imperatives for rapid expansion, which many fear may risk a dilution of standards.
Although a national body appears to be most firmly favoured by college and technikon representatives, a significant majority of their colleagues in universities were also in accord. Ninety-three per cent of all delegates agreed or strongly agreed with the proposition that national monitoring is desirable, with "strongly agree" being the predominant response of this group by 2:1. However, of the 70 per cent of university delegates who supported the idea, "strongly agree" was eight times more often the response than simply "agree". Of the relatively small number of colleges and industrial representatives, support for national monitoring was 100 per cent.
Similarly solid support was expressed for the encouragement and growth of courses leading to vocational qualifications, at 91 per cent of delegates. Precisely the same proportion also hold the view that technikons should be expanded.
There was a high degree of consensus on what are the most important challenges facing South African higher education at this time, with delegates ranking them in the following close order: maintaining quality standards; levels of financial support for students; access and related issues; levels of financial support to institutions; and curriculum review and development.
Sponsors included the Anglo American and De Beers Chairman's Fund, the British Council, BP Southern Africa, and TecQuipment Limited of the UK.
Jarram Reddy, who heads the recently formed National Commission for Higher Education, a delegate to the conference, made an unscheduled presentation to colleagues on the commission's plans and objectives. It proposes a system of higher education which is representative of all South Africa's peoples, is characterised by "high quality, lifelong learning, equity, democracy, and efficiency", and which promotes "economic, political, cultural and intellectual development". Higher education is defined as all levels of learning higher than the present matriculation or equivalent.
The work of the commission is being undertaken by a number of task groups, and its final report and recommendations on the future structure, funding and direction of South African higher education may take as long as three years. Dr Reddy intends to consult widely, and has invited written presentations. He also plans to visit institutions, and to publish interim recommendations as quickly as is practicable.
It was clear from workshops and informal discussion that senior academics and higher education managers in South Africa are already beginning to contemplate and implement the concepts and disciplines of strategic planning within their own institutions, and that many are considering quite radical approaches.
Michael Brown is pro vice chancellor of De Montfort University and Andrea Brown is an education consultant.