Proceedings of the Colloquium on Building Relationships between Higher Education and the Private and Public Sectors


One specific responsibility allocated to the Council on Higher Education (CHE) by the Higher Education Act of 1997 is to advise the Minister of Education on stimulating greater responsiveness on the part of higher education to societal needs, especially those linked to developing

South Africa's economy through enhanced higher education-industry partnerships. The general question of the responsiveness of higher education to the social and economic development of South Africa was discussed at the 2000 CHE II National Consultative Conference. This conference agreed that there was need for a project and gathering with a specific focus on the theme of "Building Relationships between Higher Education and the Private and Public Sectors" so as to address and contribute to the high-level personpower and knowledge needs of the private and public sectors. For the CHE the principal focus of this project was to provide advice to the Minister of Education on the nature of this relationship and on possible mechanisms to develop fruitful, responsive, close, durable and effective relationships between higher education and the private and public sectors in order to respond to the challenges of economic growth and development of our country.

To provide the Minister with this advice, however, implied the investigation of some fundamental aspects of the relationship between higher education and the private and public sectors. First and foremost it was necessary to develop an understanding of the changing requirements of knowledge, skills, and competencies in the world of work and their implications for the work of higher education institutions (HEIs). In addition, it was necessary also to investigate the theoretical and methodological approaches that underpin the issue of responsiveness and the different forms of organising the relationship between higher education and industry that derive from them.

With these broad objectives in mind the CHE Secretariat worked for nearly a year so as to give a clear focus to the project. This was to be about building relationships around the specifically high-level personpower needs of the private and public sectors and their knowledge and R&D needs. An essential part of the project was about defining higher education responsiveness and understanding the kinds of relationships that are needed between higher education and the private and public sectors. Thus the project was to be based on commissioned research and an engagement between higher education and private and public employers of higher education graduates that would take the form of a colloquium, a dialogue between two panels composed of representatives of HEIs, science councils and business, and of audience participation.

These conceptual and methodological decisions were made after meetings and consultations with various important stakeholders, organisations and individuals, including donors, to discuss ideas and obtain support for the project and colloquium. During this process the CHE received the generous support of DFID, the Ford Foundation and Standard Bank Foundation, who contributed in different proportions to the funding of this project. A number of agencies and individuals were commissioned to conduct research and prepare background papers to help inform a discussion about the following concerns:

  • What are the necessary attributes of high-level personpower in South Africa and what are the challenges of its formation and development?

  • What are private and public sector views and perceptions on the role and contribution of HEIs in the creation of knowledge and the development of high-level personpower for the economy and society?

  • How can higher education respond to the needs of the labour market in a rapidly evolving and dynamic economic and social environment and, in particular, in the context of the systemic changes which characterise the world of work as we enter the 21st century?

  • What are the most effective approaches and strategies for higher education to contribute to the demand for high-level personpower?

  • What are the problems and tensions in developing strategic and long-term relationships between higher education and the private and public sectors? Of what use are comparative international experiences in developing national strategy?

  • What demands do the development of intellectual property rights place on the relationships between HEIs, business and government? What should be the nature of the relationships between higher education and business and government in regard to their reciprocal rights and responsibilities in the production, ownership and dissemination of knowledge? What should be the regulatory role of government in these relationships?

  • Finally, what kind of relationships should exist between the private and public sectors and higher education in the light of the diverse social purposes that have been accorded to higher education and the idea of higher education as a public good?

The papers constituted the background for the actual colloquium which took place at the Sandton Convention Centre on 27 and 28 June 2002. The colloquium itself gathered together representatives of higher education, the private and public sectors, and labour as well as three government ministers, the Ministers of Education, Trade and Industry and Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, with three aims:

  • To begin a dialogue about the nature, strengths and weaknesses of present relationships between higher education and the private and public sectors.

  • To explore possible mechanisms and ways to build robust and long-term relationships between higher education and the public and private sectors to advance South Africa's economic and social development through the production of appropriate knowledge and high-level personpower.

  • To provide an opportunity for leaders and representatives of higher education and the public and private sectors to engage with issues concerning the knowledge, skills and competencies required by the world of work and how these relate to the diverse social purposes of higher education.

The issues proposed for discussion at the colloquium as well as the research papers were based on one fundamental assumption, the role of education in economic development. Education has been long recognised as critical to economic and social development. Classical economists like David Ricardo observed that British manufacturing superiority was attributable to the improvement in machinery, the better division and distribution of labour and to increased skills in the science and art of the producers. John Stuart Mill included among the principal forces for increasing progress in science and technology, education and improved skills.

From a different standpoint, Marx too talked of the transformation of labour from a basis of skill to a basis of science, incorporating the content of scientific and engineering revolutions. With the rise of modern industry, Marx wrote,

the varied, apparently unconnected, and petrified forms of the industrial processes now resolved themselves into so many conscious and systematic applications of natural science to the attainment of given useful effects.1

Equally, the idea that the development of industry is closely related to the progress of science and technology (and hence education) is an old one. Thorstein Veblen, notwithstanding his "sweeping attacks on the exploiting role of Big Business",

was undoubtedly right in his emphasis on the realities of applied science and technology, so utterly neglected by most economists of his day. Particularly interesting from our present point of view was his discernment not only of the effects of applied science upon industry, but also of the reverse effects of industrial technological development on science, interactions which he traced back to the Industrial Revolution, though developing mainly in the modern period.2

Despite the relationship between science and technological development and social progress, the relationship between educational outcomes and economic growth is not a simple matter of predicting labour demand and supply in the manner of manpower planning. This was made clear by the research commissioned by the CHE. The difficult relation between higher education and the world of work is not restricted to developing countries, it is a worldwide phenomenon. A recent UNESCO report recognises that:

Divergent views persist because systematic information on graduate employment and work is scarce and there are no indisputable criteria for assessing graduate employment. Graduate employment is assessed more favourably when compared to that of non-graduates than when compared to the graduate employment and work situation which prevailed a few years ago. All in all, the signals from the employment system are more blurred and ambivalent than ever before.3

The very complexity of the relationship between economic development and education is often confounded by the incomplete definitions of "employability" that are pervasive in the national and international discourses. The Report into Higher Education in the UK recognised the problem of adequately defining employability and suggests that despite this there is an "emerging consensus"4that the skills required for employability should include:

  • Traditional intellectual skills (critical evaluation of evidence, application of theory, logical argument to challenge given assumptions).

  • The new core or key skills (communication, information and communication technology, application of numbers, teamwork and improving performance).

  • Personal attributes (self-reliance, adaptability, flexibility, nous and creativity).

  • Knowledge about how organisations work.

Issues of responsiveness and employability, however, are not accepted without reservations. There is another discourse, not only within higher education, that suggests that the role of higher education is and must be much greater than responsiveness to the labour market (the market itself reduced to the needs of industry, mining and commerce). This discourse argues that higher education must also respond to wider societal goals of a socially committed and critical citizenry that embraces new values of non-discrimination, tolerance, service to community and so forth. This discourse is particularly critical of what it interprets to be the narrowing of higher education's remit to responsiveness, to the demands of specific and identifiable high-level professions, vocations and careers, at the expense of the intellectual and critical functions associated with general education.

Yet another discourse is built around the topic of the "entrepreneurial" university. HEIs are criticised for not being entrepreneurial enough and, in the face of declining public subsidies, are implored to search for new sources of income. Some consider institutions of higher learning to be businesses like any other and expect them to behave as such. They are quite comfortable with the importation into HEIs of traditionally corporate structures and styles of management.

The ostensible benefits of, and enthusiasm for, entrepreneurial institutions, however, are not equally shared by all higher education constituencies. There are worries about the consequences of this for traditional practices of knowledge production and dissemination and for the nature and trajectory of learning and teaching. Those in doubt about the value of entrepreneurialism also express concern about the effects on traditional academic cultures, communities and conduct of borrowing from the corporate culture. In the specific case of South Africa those institutions that because of our apartheid past did not have the opportunities to develop strong relationships with the private and public sectors could be especially lukewarm about calls to become entrepreneurial since this could reinforce and set up new bases of disadvantage and privilege amongst institutions. More generally, there could be the concern that the active promotion of relationships between higher education and the private and public sectors is simply another manifestation of the push towards entrepreneurial higher education.

No doubt there could be benefits for higher education becoming more entrepreneurial. Equally there could also be dangers and unfortunate consequences for knowledge production and dissemination and other areas of higher education life. Ultimately, it requires debate on the purposes and aims of higher education entrepreneurialism, the possible forms of entrepreneurialism and those that are appropriate to the specific missions of HEIs.

On the terrain of research and, fundamentally, of research and development, there is similar contestation and potential conflict over the ownership, use and diffusion of knowledge and technology and the property rights attached to it. These contestations are shaped by conceptions about the nature of the ties between industry and higher education. Some welcome the closer ties between higher education and industry. Others express apprehension that these ties result in increased emphasis on commercially relevant research at the expense of basic and fundamental research. A recent book on university-industry relations notes that:

The last few decades have been characterized by growing contributions of academic research to the foundations of industrial innovation and to the informing of regulatory decisions and legislation relating to resources, environment, health and safety. This positive development, however, has had certain side effects that create problems for academic researchers and research institutions. One of these is the erosion of the traditional openness of the academic research system through restraints on the disclosure of, and free access of all qualified scholars to, the results of academic research. A second is public concern about possible undisclosed conflicts-of-interest or strong ideological affiliations of university researchers and their effects on the objectivity and public credibility of the research results emanating from academic R&D.>5

Finally, the question of responsiveness is not easily separable from concerns about higher education as a public good and there is the vexed issue of reconciling the public good and private and particular interests with the idea of higher education responsiveness. Apropos of the question of how to reconcile "the public good of free access to information and the commercial necessity of paying for the creation of that information", Teresa Hackett is concerned that:

The situation is coming to a head. The core issues have yet to be resolved and we are nowhere near resolving them satisfactorily. Government's attempts to balance public good and private gain through patents and copyrights is in need of radical change according to those who want a 'shift in favour of public good'. It calls for policy- makers and stakeholders to work together to ensure that the important public purposes embodied in copyright law continue to be fulfilled in the digital age through the development of 'reasonable' compromises to allow the nation to benefit from the opportunities it can bring.6

The CHE itself recently devoted the first issue of its Higher Education Discussion Series, Kagisano, to this question. There it is argued that far-reaching changes captured by the concept "globalisation" have a direct bearing on the role of higher education in developed and developing countries alike. It is noted that:

  • With globalisation and the increasing marketisation of higher education it appears that locally and internationally the notion of higher education as a public good is being eroded. At the same time, it may be that higher education's relation to the public good is not self-evident and the benefits of higher education are not immediately obvious to or felt by particular social groups.7

Conceptions of public good are therefore likely to be highly contested because of the many claims that higher education is expected to satisfy. In the transformative role ascribed to it in South Africa, higher education is obliged to contend not only with the "globally homogenising pressure for conformity to particular economic principles" but also with the "differences in the social political and moral demands made on the notion of transformation as invoked in the contexts where far-reaching changes in higher education are occurring".8 Therefore in higher education itself, strategic choices are needed which strive to engage simultaneously with the need for cost efficiency and "broader social development priorities" and make "social justice issues explicit and real within notions of higher education responsiveness and accountability".9

The fit between higher education and the labour market, employability and the attributes of highlevel personpower, intellectual property rights and the public good and private interests in relation to higher education responsiveness are part of different and divergent discourses. The contending positions on these issues are held by important constituencies, each of which seeks to influence in differing ways the definition and role of higher education in economy and society. One of the objectives of the "Colloquium on Building Relationships Between Higher Education and the Private and Public Sectors and Contributing to their High-level Personpower and Knowledge Needs" was to be a platform for the discussion of these issues and a forum to find collectively possible ways of continuing the dialogue between higher education and the private and public sectors.

The publication of these proceedings is part of the CHE's continuos commitment to encourage dialogue on this issue. We hope that participants to the colloquium and those interested in the topic will find them useful and stimulating.

This publication includes a summary of the research reports commissioned by the CHE and the discussions elicited by them; the actual research papers and the keynote addresses delivered by Minister Kader Asmal, Minister Alec Erwin and Minister Ben Ngubane.


  1. Referred to in Braverman, H, (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capital (Monthly Review Press, New York) p. 155.

  2. Ibid p. 7

  3. Higher education in the 21st Century: Vision and Action (1998) October (Unesco, Paris).

  4. Skills development in higher education: Short Report (c 1999) (DfEE and HEQE).

  5. Brooks H and Randazzese University-Industry Relations: The Next four years and Beyond, p. 391.

  6. Times Higher 23 March 2002.

  7. Introduction to Kagisano Issue 1 Summer 2001.

  8. Singh, M. in Kagisano, Issue 1 Summer 2001 p. 8.

  9. Ibid p. 20.