Questions posed at the USAf-DHET webinars showed stakeholders had engaged deeply with the new draft policy for HE education institutional types

Published On: 14 September 2022|

The Department of Higher Education and Training’s new Draft Policy for the Recognition of South African Higher Education Institutional Types might well be republished for another round of public commentary after it has been reworked.

Although this has not happened with a policy before, there is nothing to preclude it from happening for the first time. It would be up to the Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, to decide if this is the best procedure, should the final draft differ considerably from the original one. So said Mr Mahlubi Chief Mabizela (left), Chief Director: Higher Education Policy and Research Support in the DHET, during one of the recent public information webinars on the draft policy.

Universities South Africa (USAf) partnered with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) to present online public webinars in order to clarify the policy, which identifies three types of higher education institutions:

  • higher education colleges, which have a relatively limited range and scope;
  • university colleges, which are universities in transition and are affiliated to an existing university; and
  • universities, which are mandated to do research and community engagement as well as teaching and learning.

Each of the three webinars included extensive questions and answer (Q&A) sessions, moderated by Dr Linda Meyer, USAf’s Director: Operations and Sector Support.

Mabizela said he could guarantee that every question posed and every comment made at the webinars would be taken seriously. He said the department would create a spreadsheet with each paragraph from the draft, together with all the comments received about that paragraph. If a paragraph changed in any way, those details would be noted on the spreadsheet.

He thanked the close to 900 participants from the three webinars for the questions put forward.  These showed that stakeholders had engaged with the policy, he said, which was comforting to the department as their questions and comments would help enrich the policy. The Q&A sessions of the three webinars, combined, exceeded three hours.

This is an edited sample of 14 of the questions posed, and their responses:

Question: Will the National Research Foundation (NRF) be opening their doors to grading researchers from private higher education institutions, and what is the possibility of funding from the NRF?

Mazibela: This goes beyond the framework of this policy. But the answer is no, on funding. The rest is a matter that should be addressed with the NRF.

Question: What are the implications for pending nursing college applications?

Mabizela: The process for applications will continue as normal. Whether you are applying to be registered as a college or you’re applying to add a qualification or a programme to your offerings, the process will still be the same.

Question: If higher education colleges currently focusing on undergraduate programmes are in the process of developing National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level eight Honours programmes, is it likely they would be in a position soon to apply for conversion to a university college?

Mabizela: This relates to that complex question of criteria, regulation and policy. Some private institutions are already close to offering 85% of qualifications on the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework (HEQSF), which is one of the requirements to qualify as a university college. They are offering not only just undergraduate degrees, or even diplomas or certificates, but also postgraduate qualifications such as Master’s and PhDs, though perhaps not on the same scale as their university counterparts. And some are already also doing research. The Council on Higher Education (CHE) has the final say on this because, as the department, we concentrate more on governance, and it is the CHE that looks at the accreditation of qualifications at institutions.

Question: If private higher education institutions satisfy the qualifying criteria for postgraduate and undergraduate qualifications, and have a well-developed research agenda where they are engaged in applied, strategic and developmental research, will they be considered for university status?

Mabizela: When an institution is being established, the policy says such institutions should first become university colleges before they become universities. This is the experience taken from the establishment of Sol Plaatje University and the University of Mpumalanga. Now, the private higher education institutions are already in existence, they already have research and probably offer 95% of programmes on the HEQSF, as required to be a university according to the policy. But they need to start as university colleges.  It’s a tricky question but there is no process for declaring these institutions as universities straight up. There must first be that process of working under the trusteeship of an established university. That’s the route for all institutions that want to become universities.

Question: Can a university college affiliate with a foreign institution?

Mabizela: The draft policy is quiet on that. Considering the requirement we currently have for private institutions to first “establish as a South African company to operate within the borders of the country”, and also considering that not even the Internationalisation Policy makes provision for that, I would say “no”.

Question: Where would institutions that offer postgrad qualifications only and do not fit into the current definitions, be placed?

Mabizela: Ninety percent of them fall within the higher education colleges category. It will be up to the institutions themselves to decide if they aspire to become universities.

Question: What is the role of the CHE in the recognition process?

Mabizela: The same role as they have now, of accreditation of qualifications. But more than that, the CHE also advises the Minister on policy. There will be engagements with the CHE even after they have submitted their comments on the adjusted draft policy. And the DHET cannot publish this policy without consulting the CHE on the very final draft.  If the Minister disagrees with the CHE’s comments on it, he must write back to them and motivate why.

The CHE also looks after the integrity of these institutional types, not only the programmes they offer. USAf also has an interest in the integrity of the higher education system – public, private, as well as all these permutations, and the system of articulation. It’s all about the integrity of the system. That is also why USAf and we [the DHET] are presenting together on this platform.

Question: What is the DHET’s thinking and purpose on the governance shift for higher education institutions to governing boards and academic boards?  

Mabizela: If you look at the Higher Education Act, almost every part of it is focused on universities, just universities. Even on the composition of university councils. Now, if we apply that law on higher education colleges such as the 10 public nursing colleges, which, together, enroll no more than 3000 students and so you could say each one involves about 300 students — of what use would a council of 30 members be, managing a higher education college that has 300 students? It’s about the governance of that institution whose complexity is far less than that of a university.  It’s also about applicable terminology. If that higher education college one day wants to become a university, it will become a university college first, so its council will have to account to another council. That’s another reason why we need to make that differentiation. All these considerations justify a review of the Higher Education Act, so that it accommodates the governance of other institutional types beyond universities.

Question: If an institution wants to remain a university college and has no ambitions to become a university, would that be in order?

Mabizela: The policy doesn’t cater for that. The policy caters for university colleges as institutions in transition. And then it depends how long that transition takes – five years, maybe 10 years, depending on the relationship they have with the institution they are affiliated to.

Question: Will multi-campus institutions be classified as a whole, or will each campus be classified separately?

Mabizela: There is absolutely nothing in the draft policy that addresses this question, but the Higher Education Act does allow for that. It is not a decision that will be made without due diligence as to why they should be classified as campuses, and what purpose that would serve.

Question: Will the default be that our public institutions remain as universities as they have been enacted? 

Mabizela: The short answer is yes

Question: If a university, for example, does not meet a particular criterion, will the DHET have a process to allow them to rectify their situation – together with the CHE obviously – to meet those specific targets and criteria, and remedy what it is that they need to do?

Mabizela: My expectation is that the simplest process is going to be that of higher education colleges. And I don’t think the criteria as outlined now in the broad framework of the policy are threatening. I don’t think there are going to be any problems with private institutions as many are already overqualified in terms of the criteria. But, of course, there will be specific details that might make things a little bit tricky.

University colleges will even be more complex than universities. In that respect we are clear on what is required. The affiliation of university colleges to a university will not just be for the sake of affiliation. The institution will have a role in growing this university college into a university one day. There will be processes within that growth relationship. There will also be a role for the CHE that still needs to be defined, a role for SAQA (the South African Qualifications Authority) and, perhaps, a minimal role for the department, which of course is going to be interested in that institution reaching fruition.

Question: Is this reclassification a real thing for universities? Where institutions don’t meet the criteria, will they have sufficient time to ensure that they comply with these requirements as set within the regulatory framework?

Mabizela: The policy will allow for the institutions to get their ducks in a row, for those that are going to be applying, to apply, and those that think they fall outside of the scope of the requirements to get in order, and so on. Existing institutions will basically remain as they are with minor areas of correction here and there. The idea was not to reclassify the existing universities.

Question: Will the department automatically assign private education institutions a category or will they have to apply?

Mabizela: They will have to apply via one of the appendices to the policy, an application form, that we are developing. There is no pressure yet because we have targeted 1 April next year for this policy to be finalised. There will be a transitional period; it’s not as if once the final policy is published, institutions need to be immediately compliant.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa