South African vice-chancellors have rejected government proposals to change radically the size and shape of higher education. They opposed forced mergers and a three-tier system that would in effect split teaching and research between institutions.
In July, the Council on Higher Education urged major changes, including creating a bottom-heavy, tiered structure of teaching, mixed and research institutions, and possible mergers involving 23 of the country's 36 universities and technikons.
In its response, the South African Vice-Chancellors Association agreed with the council's broad vision of a restructured and differentiated higher education sector, and with the need for change and greater efficiencies and participation.
But vice-chancellors said they wanted an "emergent rather than a predetermined structure", judged in terms of its alignment with agreed principles in the new system, according to chief executive Piyushi Kotecha.
A new system, Ms Kotecha said, should focus on contexts and strengths of institutions, and emerge from an existing policy framework and negotiation.
The vice-chancellors argued that imposing tiers was "flawed on educational and strategic grounds" and "neither practically viable nor necessary".
It would devalue university education, create artificial dichotomies between research and teaching, and undergraduate and postgraduate provision, and rank institutions in ways that would be viewed negatively by employers, staff and students.
The proposed structure would entrench inequalities, the vice-chancellors said. "Bedrock" institutions would mostly be historically black, with research mostly the preserve of six or so historically white universities.
Vice-chancellors are worried that teaching institutions would be stripped of status and motivation and would be unable to generate alternative income, seriously undermining their sustainability.
Also, academics in these institutions would be discouraged from research, creating a "very serious danger of brain drain" away from bedrock institutions, leading to their "academic implosion".
Instead of mergers, the vice-chancellors proposed "structured, centrally steered" regional collaboration emerging out of consultation. They warned against mergers that are not voluntary or well founded in synergy, manageability and proper benefit analyses. Mergers, Ms Kotecha said, should be treated case by case and not used as a "blunt instrument" regardless of specific situations.
The vice-chancellors believe there may be some benefit in a council proposal that three-year degrees be lengthened to four years and split into two - "associate" and "full" degrees - because many students are ill-prepared and dropout rates are high.
But they question whether this will promote access, equity, mobility, quality and efficiency, whether it will make local degrees internationally equivalent, whether associate degrees will be valued and whether higher education has the resources and capacity to implement a new degree structure.
The council's proposals were aimed at rationalising a system that runs too many institutions, squeezing best value out of limited money and encouraging institutions to perform different but complementary functions that meet national goals.
Discussion is taking place before education minister Kader Asmal charts a national plan for higher education.