Higher education challenges: presented by Higher Education South Africa (HESA)

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Meeting Summary

According to Higher Education South Africa (HESA), student enrolment has almost doubled since 1994 and the student body is more demographically representative. Actual per capita funding has decreased, although the amount of state funding has more than doubled since 2006. Funding for higher education had increased from R11bn in 2006 to R26bn in 2013 but had actually declined in real and student per capita terms. This had put pressure on tuition fee income and research grants, contracts and donations. National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) allocations, despite increases, were not adequate to meet the needs of eligible students which raised the question of how increased enrolments were to be funded. HESA proposed a three-day conference where all role-players should get together, later in the year.

The Committee and student representatives asked questions about high fees; the Higher Education Amendment Act; improving the throughput rate; HESA’s role in addressing maladministration, admissions tests; quality of offerings; exclusions on the grounds of lack of funding rather than academic performance and succession planning.

Meeting report

The Chairperson welcomed the delegation from Higher Education South Africa and representatives from the Department of Higher Education and Training and South African university students.

Higher Education South Africa (HESA) presentation
Dr Saleem Badat, Chairperson of HESA, presented, using the following six broad headings.

Student access, opportunity and success: Expansion and greater equity, low participation, high attrition and low completion, and variable quality.

Access had been achieved in that black students comprised 81%, and women 58%, of the total student body by 2011, but historically white institutions (HWIs) had proportionally fewer black students than historically black ones. 55% of all students never graduated. This was an inefficient use of resources. Throughput, drop-out, undergraduate success and graduation rates were low, and these were higher for white students than for black students. Simultaneously pursuing the goals of access, equity and quality entailed difficult choices and presented social and political dilemmas. Competing goals would have to be balanced, trade-offs would be inevitable and their implications for values and goals confronted.

Research and postgraduate education: expansion and greater equity was needed, there was low participation and graduations.

Since 1994, research outputs, enrolments and graduations had all increased but remained low in relation to national needs. Only 34% of academics had doctoral degrees. Universities’ research performance was uneven, with 10 of the 23 producing 86-89% of all research and doctoral degrees. The National Planning Commission (NPC) target of 75% and 5000 doctoral graduates by 2030 might be, Dr Badat felt, extremely ambitious, partly because of inadequate funding, and the unavailability of research infrastructure and facilities, as well as equipment. The target was also ambitious because of the lack of academic teaching and supervision capacities to expand current and mount new doctoral programmes, and the institutional capacities for managing substantial expansion in postgraduate programmes. 

Epistemological transformation: critical issue yet poor progress.

Questions of social inclusion extended beyond issues of access, opportunity and success.

Securing the next generations of academics: strong consensus, clear development programme, lack of state funding

Since 1994 the academic workforce had become more equitable but still remained largely white (53%) and male (55%). In the coming decade, 27% of academics would retire, including 50% of the most highly qualified professors. The NPC had embraced the HESA proposal for a national programme to develop the next generation of academics but this programme was constrained by a lack of funding.

The higher education institutional landscape: de facto differentiation and diversity yet not fully settled policy.

During Apartheid, higher education institutions were reserved for different race, ethnic and linguistic groups. Both historically white and historically black institutions were products of Apartheid planning and functionally differentiated to develop and reproduce the Apartheid order. This racially structured differentiation was accompanied by a set of conditions that disadvantaged the historically black institutions. 

With the constitutional democracy created in 1994, all South African higher education institutions had to be liberated from the apartheid policies. The government’s White Paper 3 policy in 1997 called “A Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education” noted that many of the institutions required consolidation or retooling for new missions and goals. The policy also noted that there was a need to diversify the educational system in terms of the mix of institutional missions and programmes that were required to meet national and regional needs in social, cultural and economic development.

The present higher education institutional landscape is a major advance on that of 1994 but there have been legitimate concerns among historically black institutions that a policy of differentiation and diversity could continue the old historical patterns of disadvantage and advantage, in the absence of development strategies and institutional redress to enable them to build their capabilities and capacities to address social and educational needs. There was scope for inter-university collaboration with differentiated research, teaching, technological and comprehensive universities all being needed and with their mix of offerings not being fixed.

The challenge of funding of Higher Education:

Funding for higher education had increased from R11bn in 2006 to R26bn in 2013 but had actually declined in real and student per capita terms. This had put pressure on tuition fee income and research grants, contracts and donations. National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) allocations, despite increases, were not adequate to meet the needs of eligible students which raised the question of how increased enrolments were to be funded.

Concluding, Dr Badat proposed a three-day conference where all role-players should get together, later in the year.

Prof A Lotriet (DA) agreed that higher education was a complex challenge and the increase in access was concerning. Schools provided first-year students who needed much support which was difficult to provide in large classes. According to recent research by Servaas van den Burgh, South Africa spent the lowest percentage of Gross Domestic Product in the world on higher education. Was higher education legislation enabling or a stumbling block? On a scale of one to ten, where was higher education?

Mr S Radebe (ANC) was concerned about the throughput rate. Should it be addressed through better basic education? Were students motivated and committed? He welcomed the Department’s 2014 White Paper to provide clarity on the differentiation issue. Although the state had increased funding and support to higher education, had it done enough?

Ms N Gina (ANC) said that although the facts reported by HESA did not augur well, they were good to get. Were their adequate platforms for HESA to discuss these issues with the Department? Bad administration was ‘killing’ universities, especially historically disadvantaged ones. There was little point in extra funding if there were leakages. There were also reported leaks in NSFAS. What role could HESA play in addressing this problem? She agreed that university autonomy was highly valuable but what was to be done about poor quality, unaccredited curricula, especially at historically disadvantaged universities?

Mr Siyabonga Hani, from the National Executive Committee (NEC) of South African University Students (SAUS) said that the increased Senior Certificate (SC) pass rate should have translated into a greater increase in the number of students at universities but this was not so because universities had their own admissions tests. He had hoped that HESA would raise this. At a Progressive Youth Alliance meeting, students had raised the fact that some programmes and courses were not being funded by NSFAS. The number of black students had increased, but not enough. Tuition fees at some universities had skyrocketed and were greater than the NSFAS provision. Where were the black students – at historically white or black institutions?

Ms Nelsile Ginindza, also from the SAUS NEC, said that quality education was needed but that skyrocketing fees denied access. Did the NDP solve this, and the issue of poverty and unemployment? African problems should be solved in an African way.

The Chairperson agreed with HESA on the need for an engagement with the Treasury, Department, NSFAS and other stakeholders in higher education. Since 1994, higher education had not accounted transparently for the high cost of studying in South Africa. The state acknowledged that skills were needed and had increased funding. Students who dropped out were a waste of funding. A visit to Rhodes University had found 120 students excluded for their inability to pay fees, not because of their results but the R4m NSFAS allocation for them was insufficient. There should be fee-free education for the poor but universities increased fees and denied access to academically worthy students.

The retirement of a large number of highly skilled professors should have been foreseen and planned for. Why could universities not deal with dilapidated buildings instead of the state? Many universities had not sent reports that the Committee had requested on their reserves and there was a lack of transparency. He stressed the need for talks to prepare for 2030.

Dr Max Price, Deputy Chairperson of HESA, said that the discussion paper provided was produced in a short time and had not been reviewed by HESA. Some figures were contradictory as they came from different sources. The issues of university admission tests and basic education, although crucial, were not covered because the paper was not a comprehensive review. Governance was also not covered in the paper.

Although HESA’s relationships in policy development were good, they were not consulted on the Higher Education Amendment Act, which they thought was unwise and unconstitutional.

Regarding the education budget, two days previously an important report, which answered questions about the high cost of education, had been published. In real per capita terms the amount of funding, per student, had dropped, which could affect quality, class size, research, building maintenance, succession planning, and support for disadvantaged and poorly prepared students. In answer to these challenges, universities both increased fees and cut back on quality. If the government ruled that fees could not be increased, quality, or the number of students, could decline. At the University of Cape Town, 25% of all students were on financial aid and were subsidised by students who paid full fees.

Regarding admissions tests, the Departments of Higher and Basic Education discussed the quality of SC passes. Despite the increase in SC mathematics passes with distinction, the number of students failing first year mathematics was increasing. National benchmark tests reduced the number of students enrolling at universities and failing. More students needed to undertake vocational training at Further Education and Training colleges. It was good that the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) had been moved from the Department of Labour to Education. South Africa needed four times more students enrolled in vocational training. The Council for Higher Education (CHE) report advocating flexible four-year curricula for degrees was the germ of a solution to the throughput rate.

In order to reduce inequalities between universities, maladministration should be looked at honestly in order to get the basics right. University Councils were too highly politicised.

HESA was a voluntary association with no powers over, for example, Vice Chancellors but they could and did help, for example at the University of Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu University when a course was de-accredited.

The NDP had got the broad strategy right. There was wide consensus about differentiation but the devil was in the detail.

The Chief Executive Officer of HESA, Dr Jeffrey Mabelebele, said that HESA could not intervene in bad administration or poor governance but HESA had analysed assessors’ report from five universities and sent that report to the universities concerned.

The Higher Education Amendment Act was a work in progress. HESA’s comments on the White Paper were taken into account and reported. Two HESA members were on the Department’s funding steering Committee. But more interaction with the Department was needed on differentiation.

The quality of undergraduate programmes had been raised in a submission on a green paper and HESA had also compiled a report on ‘where graduates were going’.

Dr Badat reiterated the request for a three-day stakeholders’ conference, to look at facts and figures. Dr Price was correct that choices had to be made. Also, there should be responsibility taken for the choices which would be made.

Regarding transparency, NSFAS had given Rhodes University R17m and Rhodes contributed R35m to support disadvantaged undergraduate students in the current year. If this state of affairs continued, Rhodes would be bankrupt in five years. At postgraduate level, NSFAS contributed R2.5m but Rhodes had been able to spend R25m because of cross-subsidisation from fee-paying students. The fee committee was open. Reserves were R400m.

Taking stock since 2004: universities were expected to be largely self-regulating and HESA did not have the authority to censure Vice Chancellors or Councils. Maladministration, and HESA’s lack of power to address it, was a challenge to be dealt with.

Ms Diane Parker, Acting Deputy Director General: Universities, representing the Department, welcomed the idea of a three-day workshop, where more accurate information could be given.

The Chairperson thanked HESA and added that SAUS had been invited with the purpose of finding stronger links and consensus.


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