Since the dawn of the South African democracy its higher education system has been altered in many ways. Changes in structure as related to the merging of existing public higher education entities, the development of comprehensive higher education institutions, the rise of private higher education institutions and a significant increase in enrolments of students at higher education institutions in South Africa are all well documented and published. Important to note is that some of these changes are in line with similar developments globally during the past two decades.
However, within the South African context these developments have primarily been driven and informed by requirements for change as determined by the need to democratise the socio-economic system in a post-apartheid South Africa. In this regard complexities as related to, among others, infrastructure development, educator development, administration and curriculum development, added additional challenges to the overhauling of the higher education system within the country.
At the same time the world has moved on, requiring world-class skills and competencies of prospective employees to meet the ever increasing need for companies across the globe to become part of a growing knowledge economy. Developing the cognitive and social competence of individuals to engage in debate, facilitate discourse, develop individual perspectives, question current realities and contribute to the co-creation of an alternative socio-economic system, have all became increasingly important for individuals to survive within the new world of work.
The question is whether the post-school education system in South Africa is geared to produce graduates who will be able to live up to the above. From a policy framework point-of-view much has been done to create an environment conducive for the development of well-rounded individuals in the 21st century. During the past 21 years both private and public higher education institutions, of which there are 116 private and 25 public institutions, has demonstrated to some degree their willingness to work with society and create a meaningful outcome for graduates in South Africa. However, much more needs to be done by the sector representatives to engage stakeholders from across society, to ensure the development of a robust education journey for all its prospective students - students which society entrust to all 141 South African higher education institutions, irrespective of being private or publicly funded.
In this regard one should indeed ask: What could the roles of entities like Higher Education South Africa (HESA), the Private Higher Education Interest Group (PHEIG), the South African Institute for Distance Education (SAIDE), the Joint Education Trust (JET), to mention but a few, become, to inform developments within the proposed integrated post-school education system? What meaningful representation, other than being nominated to be part of the council or a sub-committee thereof, at an institution of higher learning (traditionally referred to as a “university”) could be considered to facilitate engagements with stakeholders regarding those aspects which are fundamental to crafting learning experiences in line with the requirements of a 21st century society?
Taking into account the institutional vision and mission statements of individual institutions of higher learning within South Africa, one sees a rich tapestry of well articulated intentions among institutions of higher learning to serve the needs of the community and that of Africa at large. References to be “the African university of choice...” and “to serve the needs of society...” are not uncommon. However, if one delves into the supporting documentation, references to curriculum development, resource allocation and stakeholder engagements, among others, are often misdirected.
So where do representatives and interest groups from the 141 strong higher education fraternity go from here? Can we learn from those institutions among ourselves who have already managed to articulate their purpose in a meaningful way? Can we acknowledge the respect which niche as well as comprehensive institutions and institutions of technology have earned in the marketplace during the past 21 years? Could representative bodies be more welcoming of each other in crafting a holistic higher education solution for South Africa? Is it time to review regulatory frameworks which are impacting negatively on the development of an integrated post-school education system? These are the questions worth considering.
Whatever the direction – taking into account the challenges which South Africa is facing in terms of socio-economic growth and development, higher education institutions across the sector need to focus on becoming more customer centric. Designing and developing learning experiences and related solutions which will prepare people to participate and contribute towards the economy in a meaningful way is paramount. In doing so we cannot afford to produce graduates who are seemingly unemployable.
Graduates who are not well rounded and articulate to join the workforce, and who are not able to bring energy to the workplace, and in doing so, not able to assist in growing the economy. In this regard it is unacceptable to read about graduate outputs only in terms of publicly funded institutions of higher learning, without acknowledging the contribution private higher education institutions are also making towards strengthening the labour market. Similarly it is unacceptable to ‘estimate’ numbers related to registered students within the private higher education system in South Africa because of a lack of resources to do otherwise.
Regulatory and quality assurance bodies such as the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), the Council on Higher Education (CHE) and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) have a joint mandate to oversee and monitor the contributions and developments of both private and public higher education institutions in line with the national development agenda of the country. The National Development Plan (NDP) provides a powerful framework for collaboration among all interested parties to build a lasting education legacy for the people of our country and those of Africa at large.
In this regard work on quality enhancement within the higher education system in South Africa is well on its way. The Council on Higher Education initiated the Quality Enhancement Programme (QEP) during 2014, inviting all higher education institutions in South Africa to participate in a peer review process to understand quality assurance and how it could be improved within South African institutions of higher learning and ultimately result in the delivery of employable graduates in future. Regular workshops have been hosted by the CHE and reviews are published on progress made in matters related to quality assurance within the sector.
Discussions with business representatives, regarding the current contributions from higher education institutions, confirms the need for industry to employ graduates who have insight into solving complex problems, have the competence to undertake basic research and demonstrate academic capability to tackle real life challenges. According to William Dachs, Chief operating officer from The Gautrain Management Agency they have seen their staff grow in terms of personal confidence as they begin to see the world and the organisation through different eyes after having completed their higher education coursework at one of the local private higher education institutions.
He added that the way in which they ask questions has changed dramatically, asking if there “may be another way of doing things and what are we trying to achieve in the long term?” Dachs says higher education providers do not need to understand his business per se but they have to understand the role of leadership and strategy and how to apply these constructs in a work context.
Feedback from Lesley-Anne Gatter, Head: Learning and Development from Investec, echoed this sentiment. She says: “We need to have a reciprocal relationship (with learning providers) in order to ensure a quality, engagement for learners within (their) work environment. We need to co-lead and author the learning” .
Higher Education South Africa is positioned to make a powerful contribution towards the development of people, both at an individual and group level. Much more will be achieved if all the different role players and stakeholders work in unison, aligning their energies to enhance the capabilities of both prospective and already employed individuals across all sectors and industries within South Africa.
There are 141 higher education doors to knock on, and with proper quality assurance all of those should open up new possibilities for growth and development for all South Africans and people from abroad. The call is for both private and public higher education institutions to play their part as fully integrated members of the knowledge economy!
Prof. Bennie Anderson