DHET-USAf webinars provided fresh insights into the new draft policy on types of higher education institutions

Published On: 6 September 2022|

Around 900 people attended the three online public webinars presented last week to clarify the new Draft Policy for the Recognition of South African Higher Education Institutional Types. The online engagements were led by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in collaboration with Universities South Africa (USAf).

Each webinar comprised a presentation by Mr Mahlubi Chief Mabizela (left), Chief Director responsible for Higher Education Policy and Research Support in the DHET, and a discussion session. The first webinar was for private higher education institutions, the second for public ones, and the third for the general public, a grouping which still attracted way over 100 participants.

These were the right platforms for questions

He said his presentation at the webinars was designed purely to explain the content of the policy and not to change or influence any ideas. He pointed out that the list of annexures at the end of the draft policy indicated various forms still being developed.

The number of annexures might increase, but any such changes would not affect the policy itself. This article, therefore, supplements a previous one titled The Draft Policy for the Recognition of South African Higher Education Institutional Types is not as disruptive as some perceive it to be.

“Every input or comment is important. We, therefore, request you to make comments as clearly as possible and not leave them ambiguous.” He also invited the audience to suggest elements of interest that were not yet covered in the draft policy.

Dr Linda Meyer (right), USAf’s Director: Operations and Sector Support, assured the audience that the Draft Policy for the Recognition of South African Higher Education Institutional Types was a process. She said the DHET had been very open about inclusions that needed to be made, hence this rigorous engagement for information sharing and “to get particular questions that they can respond to.”

The process after 8 September 2022

First, the department would revise the draft based on the public comments. The policy had generated so much attention that they expected many submissions and could not anticipate how long this revision would take. They would then submit this public input to the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation for the SEIAS process, a Social-Economic Impact Assessment. The policy had already undergone the initial assessment during the drafting process. This final SEIAS process could involve some to-ing and fro-ing to ensure the policy had no negative impacts. Then either during this process or on its completion, the Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, has a mandatory consultation with the Council on Higher Education (CHE), which might decide to appoint a committee of some sort to analyse the policy further or even call for submissions from the DHET or others.

“I am trying to illustrate that there may be another consultation process. Given this policy’s attention, it is possible that it may be submitted to Cabinet before it goes out for publication. That will be the Minister’s decision,” said Mabizela.

The target deadline is before April 2023

The DHET wants the policy to be finalised by April next year. One of the reasons was that “public nursing colleges have been knocking at our door wanting to be classified as one of the types of higher education institutions.” Mabizela explained that these colleges currently fall under the Department of Health, not DHET, and that some are already offering Bachelor’s degrees in collaboration with universities. However, they cannot be recognised as higher education providers without a “type” of an institution to fall under – a transition which requires specific legal compliances.

The DHET had already published in a Gazette in 2019, that nursing colleges could offer Bachelor’s degrees from January 2020. A joint technical team had been established between the two government departments to facilitate the outstanding legal, administrative and technical processes to declare them higher education colleges. According to the draft policy, this type of institution focuses on undergraduate and skills development programmes.

A similar process with the DHET’s joint technical team had been established for public agricultural colleges. The National Working Group on Institutional Mergers had already identified a need for this as far back as 2003, at the inception of the higher education mergers.

Higher education colleges and research

Mabizela said the DHET had already received questions about why higher education colleges — one of the new types of institutions in the draft policy — were not allowed to do research. He said while these institutions could do research, it was not part of their mandate. “In public institutions, research is subsidised,” he said. Higher education colleges would not be subsidised for carrying out research, given that it is not part of their requirements. “However, they are still welcome to do research.”

The aim is to create synergy between types of higher education institutions

Mabizela said one of the aims of the new draft policy was to create channels of movement of students from one type of institution to another — a process known as articulation. So, a student could start at a higher education college and finish at a university. “That way, we are also trying to expand access and make the curriculum accessible to students, to promote the development of a flexible learning system progressively encompassing the entire sector,” he said.

The policy is not about downgrading institutions

He said the media had focused on the policy as a means of downgrading institutions from one type to another. Still, there was no evidence or insinuation of this in the policy. “That is not to say it is impossible,” said Mabizela. But the policy had not created the possibility of this. He said Section 65AB of the Higher Education Act of 1997 states that the Minister may, at the request of the Council of the institution concerned, and after consultation with the CHE, and by notice in the Government Gazette, amend or remove any restrictions on the scope and operations of a higher education institution.

“So, the Minister can close a public higher education institution now. It has always been there, since 1997,” he said.

“If you want to look at it in terms of a downgrade, yes, it allows for that, but it is also possible to change from a higher education college to a university college and from a university college to a university. So, it cuts both ways.

“This policy is not introducing anything new other than higher education colleges (which have a relatively limited range and scope) and university colleges (which are universities in the making). Nothing else,” he said.

Mr Mabizela commented on the high attendance numbers and the delegates’ active engagement. He extended his gratitude to USAf for organising these events.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa