An integrated varsity system is the way forward

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

Institutions that have different mandates and duties - and co-operate with
one another - will best serve South Africa, write Adam Habib, Peter Mbati
and Mahlo Mokgalong.

Too many have chased the elusive goal of evolving into a research intensive
university Among the ideas being considered is rethinking degrees beyond
institutional boundaries.

A differentiated higher education system is a prerequisite for economic
competitiveness and inclusive development. The best exemplar of this is
Finland. The country does not have a single university in the top 50 of any
of the global ranking systems - yet it consistently tops the competitiveness
ranking and the human development indicator charts.

Wits is investigating ways of producing graduates jointly
with Limpopo and Venda universities.

That is because Finland's educational institutions are differentiated, each
with different mandates and responsibilities, independent and yet connected
to one another, thereby creating a seamless system that is both nationally
responsive and globally competitive.

A differentiated higher education system enables responsiveness to the
diverse and multiple needs of an economy and a society. This model is
particularly relevant to the developing world, where the demands of the
knowledge economy and social needs remain underdeveloped and therefore
require dedicated focus and attention.

In South Africa, it would allow some universities to play a bigger role in
the teaching of undergraduate students and the production of professionals
to meet market skills demands, which is necessary to improve economic growth
and competitiveness. It would also allow other universities to focus on
postgraduate students and undertake high-level research, which are equally
essential if we are to develop a knowledgebased economy.

And then, yet again, this higher education system should have a further
education and training sector comprising colleges focused on producing
graduates with vocational and applied skills.

These different responsibilities require very different skill sets,
institutional environments and investment patterns. This is why they cannot
simply be done by a single type of institution or university.

Why is it that South Africa has not been able to explicitly progress towards
a differentiated higher education system?

The answer, of course, lies in our history, which has saddled the evolution
of our system and our current choices with the burden of a racialised

Too many higher education leaders in the post-apartheid era have wanted to
transform their institutions into what they had been prevented from becoming
in the apartheid era. Not only has this proved to be impossible, given the
scarcity of the resources available and the long time frame required to
mould universities and higher education institutions, but it has also
paralysed the system.

To get ourselves out of this impasse, we need to rethink the debate and
fashion the establishment of a differentiated system on four distinct

First, it must be underscored that the research enterprise must be common to
all universities. Even the universities primarily focused on the teaching of
undergraduate students must be engaged in research.

Otherwise, how else can they guarantee that their academics are at the
forefront of - and teaching the latest developments in - their disciplinary
fields? The only difference between these institutions and the more
research-intensive ones should be the quantity and extent of the research
obligations and, perhaps, the type of research activities.

Second, South African university executives and policymakers need to rid
themselves of a status conception of the university system, according to
which research-intensive institutions are seen as more illustrious than
their undergraduate teaching counterparts. Global ranking systems have
fostered this illusion, further burdening the imagination and ambition of
university executives, and the result is that too many have chased the
elusive goal of evolving into a research-intensive university.

Third, the financing of universities must not implicitly assume this status
hierarchy. Too often, executives at the research-intensive universities have
simply assumed that they should be the recipients of a larger largesse of

In fact, executives at researchintensive universities often make the
argument that one cannot turn the clock back on the history of privilege
that enabled only some of our institutions to evolve into research
universities, and that South Africa should position these institutions
through the generous provision of resources to compete with their
counterparts elsewhere in the world.

The assumption is that larger resources would be directed to these
universities. This argument was, of course, contested by historically black
universities, which use their history of disadvantage as a leverage to make
a claim for a bigger share of the resources. The effect was an implicit and
explicit fight for who is entitled to a bigger share of what was effectively
a dwindling higher education pie.

Finally, our higher education system must be flexible enough to allow
institutions to progress from one institutional variety to another, should
they so decide. Societies and their needs change over time and institutions
must be given the right to evolve in order to become responsive to these
needs. Moreover, allowing for institutional evolution enables university
executives to be more pragmatic in their decision-making since their
institutions are not forever closed off from being one or the other
institutional type.

But, however well we implement these principles, we are unlikely to make
progress in this regard so long as our universities and higher education
institutions do not learn to partner and work with each other.

These partnerships must be explicitly directed to breaching and overcoming
the racial and linguistic boundaries that defined the evolution of the
higher education system. And they must go further than simply formal
interactions. The partnership must involve the very core activities of the
universities and be directed towards joint degrees, combined teaching
programmes, joint research initiatives, support for the building of
institutional capacity and enabling the mobility of staff and students.

We, at the universities of Limpopo, Venda and the Witwatersrand, are
experimenting with how this can be done. Our institutional executives have
already met to identify potential areas of collaboration. Further meetings
are planned with both executives and academic staff members. Among many
ideas being considered is the possibility of innovatively rethinking degrees
beyond institutional boundaries so that we jointly can produce graduates
with skill sets needed by the South African economy.

For example, Wits's engineering faculty is considering working with Limpopo
and Venda's science faculties to bridge the knowledge gap by sharing skills
and expertise. Graduates from either a particular stream in these faculties
or those who graduate with a particular pass may get direct entry into the
third year of Wits's engineering programme.

This would allow these graduates to then earn both a science degree from
Limpopo and Venda and an engineering degree from Wits. Should we succeed in
doing this, not only would we have enabled a seamless movement between our
institutions, but we would have also jointly produced graduates with skill
sets urgently required by the economy and society.

Other, similar ideas are being thought through in our engagements. The
driving force in these engagements is a philosophical and strategic
realisation among all our people that we will never truly transform our
higher education system and the racial and unequal legacies bequeathed by
apartheid as long as we do not have the courage to proactively breach our
institutional boundaries and partner with each other.

In this sense, we see ourselves as more than simply academics; we see
ourselves as pioneering foot soldiers in a broader struggle to transform
higher education from its binary racial divides into one that is
differentiated, nationally responsive and globally competitive - and one
that we all can collectively be proud of.

Article by: Adam Habib, Peter Mbati and Mahlo Mokgalong.
Article Source: The Sunday Times.