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CHE > Media and Publications > Che Events Presentations > The transformation of higher education in South Africa: How much have we achieved?
Thierry M Luescher and Ashley Symes
November, 2003

Perceptions of policy developments 1997-2003 and outlook for the next five years. This research report was prepared by Thierry M Luescher and Ashley Symes on the basis of research conducted to inform discussion at the Fifth Consultative Conference of the Council on Higher Education (CHE) held in Pretoria on 12 November 2003.


This research project has sought to give an account of the perceptions of key role-players in higher education policy-making, to reflect on the achievements of policy at a systemic and institutional level in the period 1997-2003 and to provide an outlook for the future. Moreover, it has sought to assess the role of different actors and circumstances, as well as active and passive choices that have shaped the current state of the higher education system. Respondents focused less on assessing the extent of what has been achieved in relation to what was intended or on the achievability and value of policy goals than was initially anticipated in the conceptualisation of the research. Yet the responses still provide clues as to what we have achieved in the pursuit of building a single national higher education system that is equitable, characterised by quality teaching, learning and research programmes, attuned to national development needs, capable of producing highly-skilled graduates, supportive of a democratic ethos and a culture of human rights, and focused on the advancement of all form s of knowledge and scholarship (White Paper, 1997: Section 1.4).

On the basis of the responses and their interpretation, a number of important achievements in the transformation of South African higher education can be discerned related to the White Paper’s vision of a transformed higher education system. It should be said that these achievements remain subject to a number of qualifications, as is to be expected of a transforming system. The qualifications are useful in indicating where attention is required in order to sustain a steady pursuit of goals. In addition, research respondents themselves may not uniformly recognise these “achievements”, as is to be expected of role-players with diverse experiences and perspectives. Once again, their caution serves as a signal of where further work needs to be done. All qualifications and divergent views aside, the long view of this research highlights the following as significant accomplishments:

First, all indications are that policy developments in the past five years have been able to lay the
foundations of a single national higher education system. The findings and analysis of the responses show that the system is not becoming more fragmented as alleged by one policy analyst; on the contrary, from the policy perspective the system is becoming more aligned internally and around the state’s imperatives. Moreover, the balance that is emerging for the future with respect to policy instruments, core functions and social role augurs well for a system that will ultimately be able to “normalise” after the ructions of apartheid and the turbulence of the early years of transition. If the system can consolidate, co-ordinate and prioritise policy change, and stabilise itself round the core functions of teaching and learning, research and community service, then it will be in a far better position to respond to issues of global competitiveness, rapid knowledge and technology expansion, and sustainable social and economic development. However, it is important to remember that getting to this point of
stability remains a goal to be worked towards; in between stretches the complex terrain of mergers, and both institutions and policy analysts have pointed to the risks and contestations they imply for both the system and institutions. Only effective sectoral representation and genuine consultation between state and sector can see the sector safely through this landscape.

Second, it is clear that the system is concerned with achieving a balance between public accountability and institutional autonomy, as evidenced by the energy of the debate around the manner in which the state exercises steerage of the system. Although apparent differences in the perceptions of historically-disadvantaged and historically-advantaged in stitutions may suggest that HAIs’ claims of infringements on institutional autonomy might be exaggerated, these should not be discarded lightly. Even the disagreement expressed by some institutions with regards to certain policy developments (especially mergers) may be viewed as warranted to a degree, given that policy attention over the past five years has tended to deflect from the core business of higher education. Yet more salient points can and should be made: As the system begins to take shape, some tempering in the state’s approach to steering may be anticipated; the “overdrive” that has bordered in some respondents’ view on interference may gear downwards. It has been reiterated that institutions must own their public accountability and hold to the constitutionally enshrined principle of academic freedom. This
might require, however, a more pronounced role for institutional Councils as the trustees of the
public good and of Senates as the defenders of academic freedom.

Third – and possibly the most encouraging conclusion of the research with regards to substantive aspects of the White Paper vision – the principles of equity and quality have been steadily internalised by institutions. This is not to deny that much substantive work remains to be done in both these critical areas, or to suggest that every implication of the enterprise has been grasped. Yet the frequency and persistence observable in respondents’ references to equity and quality concerns – regarding both retrospective and prospective policy developments - provide strong evidence that national policy and legislation are on the way to achieving their goals.

Finally, there is a clear recognition by all role-players of the social role of higher education. A significant number of references – often passionately worded - were made to the importance for the country that higher education responds to national development needs. The sector's determination to make its contribution in support of sustainable economic growth is buttressed by strong voices calling for a higher education plan to support economic development and black economic empowerment, to engage in cross-sectoral dialogue and to forge partnerships between higher education and the public and private sectors. This in itself constitutes an argument for higher education to take up its role in suppor ting substantive democracy and the goals of a transforming democratic society.



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