Backlash against Higher Education Department’s draft university policy misses the point

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Professor Sioux McKenna, Director of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University
Professor Sioux McKenna, Director of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University

By Professor Sioux McKenna, Director of the Centre for Postgraduate Studies at Rhodes University

 

The draft university policy is not about the public sector at all. Instead it sets out the future designations that will be available in the private higher education sector. It attends to the demand by private institutions that they too should be able to call themselves ‘universities’.

number of academic commentators have responded to the Department of Higher Education and Training’s (DHET’s) draft policy on institutional differentiation gazetted last week. The draft policy calls for three forms of higher education institution: universities, university colleges and higher education colleges. The commentators say that changing the designation of existing universities could be a volatile decision.

On the whole, I think they have missed the policy’s real purpose.

Their reading of the document is understandable because the document is poorly worded and ambiguous – perhaps intentionally so.

My reading is that this document is not about the public sector at all. Instead it sets out the future designations that will be available in the private higher education sector. It attends to the demand by private institutions that they too should be able to call themselves “universities”.

Current forms of differentiation

There is a great need for different post-school paths in any national education sector. Students leave school with varying results, they have different interests, and the economy needs a range of forms of skilled labour. Even in research, there is a need for differentiation along a number of lines, such as knowledge creation that is practically applicable and that which is “blue sky” and contributes to the planet’s stock of understanding.

Given the racist differentiation of the past, it is unsurprising that few are willing to consider how we can more clearly differentiate our current public higher education system. The current system, thanks to significant post-apartheid restructuring, comprises 11 traditional universities, nine comprehensive universities, and six universities of technology.

A number of forces work against clearer differentiation between these. Global rankings privilege a small set of university activities and thereby drive institutions in the direction of research and postgraduate education. Similarly, South Africa’s blunt funding formula rewards particular activities more than others, pushing all institutions in the same direction, regardless of their capacity or responsibilities.

It is unlikely that this policy will address the need for clearer differentiation as to what the nature of each university in the public sector should be. We did not have the political context in which we could have such conversations in 1994 – and we don’t have it now. The idea of “downgrading” any of the 26 public universities, as has been reported in a number of news articles, is a non-starter.

Perhaps the characteristics of the proposed new university types – universities, university colleges and higher education colleges – will be used to make decisions about future public institutions, but the likelihood of them being applied to existing universities in the near future seems low.

Categories of private higher education

This legislation potentially attends to a pressing issue: the designations of private institutions.

The private higher education sector is growing at an incredible rate. The DHET currently lists 93 accredited private institutions. Many of these are specialised and have a small student body but collectively they admit more than 220,000 students.

These institutions comply with all the same accreditation and quality assurance processes as the public sector does. This makes it challenging for the legislation around nomenclature to continue: at present private colleges cannot call themselves “universities”. It is also increasingly obvious that the public sector cannot attend to the demand for higher education and alternative routes are needed.

This proposed legislation will allow private institutions to apply for the designation “university” and it sets the criteria by which they can do so.

But the likelihood of the same criteria being applied to existing public universities is very slim indeed.

 

Original article: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2022-08-16-backlash-against-draft-university-policy-misses-the-point/

 

Source:  Daily Maverick