PANEL - CHE book 'South African Higher Education Reviewed: Two Decades of Democracy'

CHE book - South African Higher Education Reviewed The CHE book South African Higher Education Reviewed: Two Decades of Democracy was recently published and offers a detailed look at a range of core issues in the university sector, put together by multiple authors. The book was a collaborative publication and this idea of varied perspectives was echoed in the panel discussion held at Rhodes University on Wednesday 12 October 2016. Seven PhD scholars each presented the highlights and key issues raised by the chapters of the book. The presentation was attended by doctoral scholars and supervisors and was concluded with an open discussion following a series of provocative questions posed by the panel themselves. 

Renée Morrison began by discussing the chapter on governance. She pointed out the concerns about increasing managerialism in universities and the weakening capacity of the State to utilize knowledge developed about the system.She went on to highlight a number of governance challenges being experienced by the sector. A number of institutions without strong self-governance traditions have been rendered almost dysfunctional over the last twenty years. The government’s response has been to intervene usually through the appointment of administrators. There have been 14 instances of direct State intervention in institutional governance between 1998 and 2012. Renee pointed out that there seems to have been an increased ‘stakeholderisation’ of higher education, with groupings representing their group interest rather than attending to a shared concern for the academic project.

Nomathemba Ngcobo drew out the key issues in the Teaching and Learning chapter. She raised concerns that drivers such as the mergers and the use of Programme Qualification Mix, meant to ensure a more equitably differentiated system, had limited success and were now being undermined by academic drift. Nomathemba highlighted the ways in which teaching and learning had enjoyed some increased prominence through such initiatives as Teaching Excellence Awards. She described how extended programmes had enjoyed some success in increasing access to higher education but raised the concern that success and throughput remains racially differentiated across all institutions and disciplines. She drew clear lines between student protests and concerns about social injustices in the system, especially around the increasingly unaffordable study fees.

CHE discussion panel

‌From left to right: Amanda Mphahlele (UJ), Evelyn Muthama (RU), Puleng Motshoane (UJ), Temwa Moyo (DHET), Kevin Ncube (CPUT), Nomathemba Ngcobo (UP), Renée Morrison (WSU)

Evelyn Muthama and Puleng Motshoane discussed the Research chapter and pointed out the implications of the drive for major increases in postgraduate throughput. They pointed to some of the contradictions between notions of a ‘knowledge economy’ and the process of knowledge creation. They looked though some of the government interventions designed to increase research such as the DHET research incentives, NRF funding schemes, and the DST policy on intellectual property. They pointed to the complexities of attempts to shift demographics at postgraduate level and the need to increase the number of students able to study full time. They ended by exhorting the benefits of a cohort model of postgraduate education, as illustrated by those present at the panel discussion!

Kevin Ncube reflected on the Community Engagement chapter and commented that despite attempts by the authors not to consider ‘community’ as extraneous to the university and in need of remedial attention, there remained a notion that community is ‘out there’ and comprises marginalized groups. He challenged those present to consider the ways in which the university is both in and of the community.

DocweekOct16_1 Amanda Mphahlele raised the key issues made in the academic staffing chapter. She pointed to the slow progress in demographic transformation of academic profiles. 

‌The difficulties of attracting and retaining staff where entry level salaries are not competitive in comparison to the corporate or public sector exacerbates this issue.Amanda also indicated that transformation needs to go beyond statistics and consider the extent to which the human interactions in our universities reflect the diversity of our nation. The increase in number of academics on contract has serious implications for quality and needs to be understood as an international issue whereby academic positions are casualised.

Temwa Moyo provided the final input on the panel and discussed the key issues raised in the chapter on higher education funding. The chapter provided three scenarios for the next three years based on funding levels, student numbers and staffing needs, with the aim of determining the effects of each scenario on the system. These scenarios are based on historical averages to make predictions/estimates under each scenario. The First Scenario represents the status quo with enrolments that increase faster than the resources thus making the system unsustainable and unfeasible.

DocWeekOct16_2 The Second Scenario assumes that funding remains at the current rate of 0.8% as a proportion of GDP. If the funding is constant at this rate enrolments and enrolment of students will have to be drastically reduced to

ensure that current standards in quality are maintained. This would have social and economic consequences thus not acceptable.

The third Scenario attempts to strike a balance with modest, or ‘acceptable’ growth in enrolments where enrolment will increase from the current 19% to 23%. This seems to be more affordable as funding as a proportion of GDP is estimated to increase to 0.9%, which is argued to be more feasible. Temwa pointed out that this call for an increase to 0.9% of GDP spend on higher education is considered conservative in the light of current #FMF calls for an increase to 1.5%. This chapter was written prior to the #FMF movement but the concerns about fiscal constraints on growth is clearly articulated.


The panel moved on to pose a number of questions to the audience, as follows:


  • State involvement in institutional governance versus institutional autonomy; academic freedom versus public accountability; are these tensions being held in a working relationship or is there concern for an imminent disaster? What might the implications of #FMF be for levels of State involvement in the governance of our universities?‌
  • The audit reports found prevalence of fiduciary failure, financial corruption and factionalism in some institutions. How can these problems be overcome?
  • Which stakeholders should form part of the proposed national systemto drive improvement of T&L?
  • How will institutions ensure maximum and valuable participation and impact?
  • What form of educational development is needed to support and equip academics with pedagogical skills to promote good teaching practice across disciplines?
  • Have the institutional mergers addressed the institutional inequality problem?
  • What is a research intensive university? Should all universities be aspiring to be one?
  • Can community engagement be understood independently of the purpose/function of the university?Should Community Engagement be funded separately? What will the implications of #FMF be for community engagement?
  • Why is there such a massive mismatch between student enrolments growth, staff numbers and funding?
  • Was massification introduced too early or without requisite structures?
  • Given the restricted resources such as underfunding with high demands in the South Africa, the book predicts that in the face of these pressures the Gross Enrolment Ratio will decrease from 87.5% to 59.7%. What are the implications?
  • Universities have, prior to #FMF, used increases in student fees to balance their books due to severe underfunding in higher education. Should thus there be a cap on university fees at South African universities?




Source:  Prof Sioux McKenna

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