The USAf Board ponders the next five-year strategic framework

Published On: 24 July 2019|

Scenarios thinking took centre stage at Universities South Africa’s Annual Workshop of the Board of Directors on 19 June, as the Board began to contemplate USAf’s next five-year strategic framework. Chief Executive Officer, Professor Ahmed Bawa, led the discussion, presenting local and global scenario-building issues before tackling their national equivalent and finally zooming in on South Africa’s higher education scenario-building issues.

Members of the USAf Board contemplating the next five-year strategic framework.

On the global level, the USAf CEO cited the shifting geopolitics that were translating into shifting geopolitics of knowledge and increasing global distrust of knowledge or science systems. He said the world was experiencing increased mobility of experts across systems with enormous implications for national demographics. Universities, globally, were contending with issues of open access to the selective university sector; mission differentiation among institutions, social mobility and increased competition for international students. While there were   many more issues at play, the CEO acknowledged that all over the world, universities faced funding issues and that all had to identify and utilise creative funding models to survive and thrive.

Nationally, the underperforming economy was exacerbating unemployment and deepening poverty and inequality.  The weakened fiscus was negatively affecting subsidy decisions, thus increasing pressure on universities’ funding for students; research and innovation and infrastructure development.  A scramble for diminishing resources was giving rise to political, social and policy instability, unrelenting corruption and governance breakdown. Meanwhile, the national development plan maintained its pursuit for 2030 higher education targets, such as 30% participation rate; 75% of PhD acquisition in academic staff; production of 5,000 PhDs a year and 80% throughput – notwithstanding declining social ownership of universities and persisting concerns over the quality of basic education as a determinant of quality university input, throughput and ultimate output.

Resulting from all of the above, Prof Bawa said the higher education sector was suffering continuing instability that had continued way past the #feesmustfall protests of 2015/16. In the past three years, instability had stemmed from administrative glitches in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) operations; inadequate student accommodation as well as staff demands for higher-than-inflation salary increases. “Governance issues raise the question: how relevant does the Higher Education Act of 1997 remain, in the changed environment that our universities operate in today?” Prof Bawa asked his peers. He said in the short to medium term, universities needed to re-visit issues of strengthening councils and the leadership pipeline, the state of institutional autonomy and academic freedom while also reviewing the role of students and unions in governance structures. He argued that funding and the sustainability of the education sector remained a paramount concern, taking into consideration, staffing matters; student quality; undergraduate size and shape; post-graduate size and shape; research and innovation size, shape and sustainability; and violence, substance abuse and the emotional health of students.

Members of USAf’s Board of Directors engaged very pointedly with these three sets of scenarios and, from that discussion, agreed on a set of issues that USAf needs to focus on in its next 5-year strategic outlook effective from 2020 to 2025. While they distinguished between issues in the higher education internal environment and those external to the sector, the Board decided to take a three-pronged approach to formulating the 2020-2025 strategic framework, focusing on Student Development/Success, the Sustainability of the Sector and Engagement, deliberately distinguishingbetween actions and interventions to be undertaken at institutional and systemic levels.

What member institutions can expect

The USAf strategy will take a more student-centred approach aiming, primarily, at redesigning institutions to facilitate the intellectual, social and emotional development of our students. It will seek to restore universities as centres of intellectualism and excellence to achieve the project of producing new generations of engaged intellectuals.

USAf’s next five-year strategy will seek to redesign member institutions to facilitate the intellectual, social and emotional development of students.  Photo: Courtesy of the University of Pretoria.

As regards sustainability, the strategy will see USAf continuing to advocate for appropriate and adequate staffing, technological and other infrastructure conducive to growth and long-term survival of the sector.

From an engagement perspective, the strategic framework will re-visit and map out USAf’s key stakeholders with intent to target with engagement, the most strategic entities (e.g. regulators, business and industry).

In consultation with the USAf’s Executive Committee, the CEO will proceed to formulate the next Strategic Framework, the draft of which it is envisaged will be presented at the last Board sitting for the year in October.

The Board revisits the differentiation question

Still during the Annual Workshop of the Board, the Chief Executive Officer tabled for discussion, the Differentiation in Higher Education: Framework Document that was formulated during the HESA days in 2012. The framework was lauded as a fantastic document that set the stage at that time for differentiation in the sector, and articulation from one sub-system of the post-education and training sector to another, and also from one university type to another. It was also recognised as being as relevant today, as it was, back in 2012. It was, however, important to determine whether the changes seen and experienced in the higher education environment warranted a revising of aspects of the Framework.

As the Board continues to consider the differentiation question, vice-chancellors will, in the near future, indicate their institutions’ strengths, niche areas and their strategic outlook.

In the near future, a survey would be distributed to all vice-chancellors, through which they would indicate their institution’s strengths, niche areas and their strategic outlook. Results of this survey would guide further engagements and the way forward.