The Draft Policy for the Recognition of South African Higher Education Institutional Types is not as disruptive as some perceive it to be

Published On: 27 August 2022|

The state believes that its new higher education draft policy, which will lead to all South African institutions of higher learning being classified into three types, is not the major disruption some perceive it to be.

The reaction to the Draft Policy for the Recognition of South African Higher Education Institutional Types, published in the Government Gazette of 8 August 2022, has ranged from shock to caution. Yet the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) says if the implications of the draft policy were being measured as an earthquake, it would be a minor tremor.

Mr Mahlubi Chief Mabizela (left), Chief Director responsible for Higher Education Policy and Research Support in the DHET, said last week that the draft policy was minor in magnitude compared to the mergers of public higher education institutions of about 20 years ago, which reduced them from 36 to, initially 23, and now 26 universities. That would have ranked a major to severe impact of about 6 to 8 on the Richter Scale, which, although no longer operative, remains the famous phrase to refer to the magnitude of an earthquake. In comparison, this draft policy was about a 3 or 4, which, in earthquake terms, signified being felt by many, but recording no damage.

“What is major about this draft policy is the introduction of two new types of institutions: higher education colleges and university colleges,” he said. Higher education colleges can offer undergraduate degrees but have no mandate to do research, and university colleges are transitional, that is, universities in the making.

“The only ground of the universities being shaken is the definition they didn’t have before. But the criteria are things they already do: research, community engagement, quality teaching and learning,” he said. “And that’s what we want from them – to produce postgraduates. The few existing institutions that will be worried are those that don’t produce enough postgraduates,” he said.

The public has until September 8 to comment. To assist this process, Universities South Africa (USAf), together with the DHET, will host three online webinars for people to ask questions and get clarification on details of the draft policy. The first, on August 31, is targeted at private higher education institutions. The second, on September 1, is for public higher education institutions including vocational education and training, and other colleges. The third, on September 2, is for the general public.

The policy is a draft and Mabizela said they expected it would adapt before it became final.

Besides the participation in the forthcoming workshops and the comments that would be submitted in writing, the other significant input towards any possible changes would come from the Council on Higher Education (CHE). This would happen towards the end of the process via a panel of wide-ranging experts the CHE would appoint.

Ahead of the upcoming workshops, Mabizela clarified some key aspects of the policy.

The background

A media statement released on August 11 said the policy had developed after “an extensive research and consultative process carried out by the Department which began in late 2018”.

Mabizela said the consultation had started a little earlier when two new universities, Sol Plaatje in the Northern Cape and the University of Mpumalanga, had been established in 2013. “It was a question of lessons learned,” he said. One of these lessons was the realisation that a new institution should first be affiliated with an existing university, “a concept that is used internationally”, he said. That led to the department embarking on a process of reviewing the Higher Education Act and the need to factor in university colleges, a step in the journey of establishing a new university.

They then started to wonder if they needed to expand this to accommodate other types of institutions as well, which led to the three in the draft policy:

  • higher education colleges, which have a relatively limited range and scope, focusing on undergraduate and skills development programmes;
  • university colleges or universities in transition; and
  • universities.

These three types of institutions were named in the revised Higher Education Act 101 of 1997, as amended in 2016. The Act stated the Minister would establish their criteria, and discussions about that had started in 2018. So, this was not a policy that had sprung up out of the blue, he said.

Who was responsible for the consultative process?

The department usually develops a policy by establishing a committee of experts who do their research and consultations and then draft a document for discussion. This policy happened differently. They already had two expert committees to assist with establishing Sol Plaatje University and the University of Mpumalanga. Each committee’s report had included recommendations for such future processes.

An internal departmental committee – headed by Dr Diane Parker, the former Deputy Director-General of DHET’s University Branch, and comprising Mabizela, the other two chief directors (responsible for governance, and teaching and learning at universities) and relevant colleagues — had assessed these recommendations. They had also considered the CHE’s submission to the Minister about the experience, a report of which is not in the public domain.

Another key input into the policy came from “number crunching”, said Mabizela, of data on the enrollments, programmes and research including data from private higher education institutions.

This policy allows private institutions to qualify to be called universities

Until this policy, private higher institutions have been barred from registering and being known as universities. Now, if they fulfil the requirements, they can. Mabizela said these private institutions had been unhappy about the restriction, but the policy was not relaxing it as a response to pressure from them. It was rather an obligation to classify the higher education system appropriately and to fulfill the demands expected from our higher education system in South Africa.

That prohibition had existed for a reason, he said. Bogus institutions calling themselves universities had flooded the market in the late 1990s to early 2000s.

The policy is not about punishing universities that are less research intensive and community orientated

The draft policy defines universities as institutions that engage in undergraduate and postgraduate higher education, knowledge production (research) and community engagement. Could these criteria be a way of punishing some existing institutions for not focusing enough on all these areas?

“The policy is not intended to force any institution in whichever direction,” said Mabizela. The department understood the South African university system was not uniform but varied and was still living the legacy of apartheid. They could not change this overnight, so their approach and focus were always developmental.

Existing policies such as the University Capacity Development Programme (UCDP) and the Sibusiso Bengu Development Programme (SB-DP), the latter focusing on eight specific institutions, had been designed to bring greater satisfaction to historically disadvantaged institutions. “Our institutions need to have the reputation of being a university and a university that offers quality – quality education, quality research, and quality in its teaching and learning as well,” he said.

Complexities of university colleges being affiliated to existing universities

In terms of the draft policy, for a university college to be upgraded to a university, it needs to be affiliated with an existing university. But do university colleges want to be affiliated with universities? And do they have the resources to do this? Who is going to take responsibility for this nurturing and guidance, presumably at no additional pay?

Mabizela pointed out a university college was not a new concept in South Africa. The University of the Cape of Good Hope, created in 1872 by an Act of the Cape Colony’s Parliament, had been affiliated with the University of London. After the country’s unification in 1910, it was renamed the University of South Africa (Unisa), relocated to Pretoria, and became responsible for overseeing university colleges across the country. These colleges were the forerunners of many of today’s existing universities.

But this had been in the early 20th century, and they had to bring the concept of university colleges into the 21st century.

Mabizela said they also had to look at the nitty-gritty practicalities of this affiliation. “Will university colleges require the department to be the mediator? Is it something that they can do on their own?” he said.

There was also the question of whether the affiliated university had to be one in South Africa. “The policy is quiet on this, but will we accept it if a local institution is affiliated with a foreign university?” said Mabizela.

A university requires a certain percentage of postgraduate programmes

The policy states that for a university college to become a university, at least 5% of its enrolments must be at postgraduate level. Mabizela said people could ask “Why 5%? Why not lower?”. If there were a problem, the department would help push them to 5% “unless there is a compelling reason supported by evidence”, he said.

“But let’s not stick to the excuses. Let’s work on those issues. So, if an institution says, ‘I don’t have capacity’, then how do we capacitate you?” he said.

What about specialised institutions?

According to the draft policy, a university college “shall focus on undergraduate teaching and learning providing a holistic approach to education and training in a relatively broad number of cognate fields or domains of study, compared to Higher Education Colleges, and must provide a holistic approach to education and training”.

How would this affect institutions that offer specialised fields of study, yet mostly undergraduate ones?  Where do such specialised institutions fit into these three types of institutions?

The key, explained Mabizela, lay in the word “holistic” in terms of the approach to education, and also in other functions of a university such as research.  “If you, as an institution, are specialising in a particular field, and that particular field doesn’t traditionally produce postgraduates, you have got to work towards producing post-graduates and research publications,” he said.

Where existing universities might not fulfil the requirements, it was not about bringing them down but working together.

“It’s not a question of ‘are you going to take us down’? No, absolutely not. It’s a question of ‘how do we go there together’?” said Mabizela.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa