Document Sample
Vol 16 No 1 December 2008
(formerly published by the Education Policy Unit (Natal))

Published by the Centre for Education Policy Development (CEPD) P O Box 31892, Braamfontein, 2017
Phone (011) 403-6131 Fax (011) 403-1130 Email

Straddling the knowledge divide in the new comprehensive universities
By Trish Gibbon 1: Introduction In higher education systems throughout the world, the need for diversity and differentiation is recognised. The emergence of new professions, the expanded demands of the labour market, the extended social base from which higher education institutions draw their students, and the development of new disciplines and fields of study, are all drivers of greater diversity. Nonetheless, in many systems the kind of institutional stratification that saw institutions distinguished from each other by clear mission differentiation often determined by the state, has largely been superseded by new forms of differentiation driven by different mechanisms (Scott, 2006). These new forms of differentiation are frequently driven by the market, but, significantly, also by the state which, through the mechanism of mergers, has broken down the firm institutional boundaries of the past. In this scenario it is possible for a single institution to be characterised by a high level of internal differentiation in that it accommodates a range of academic programmes and levels that would previously have been found in different institutional settings. Instead of the separation of roles and their assignment to different institutions, higher education institutions increasingly take on a wide variety of roles and look similar to one another. As a consequence, they differ not in their roles, purposes and levels, but rather in the relative weight that is given to each, in their strategic focus areas and their niche strengths. 2: SA drivers of de-differentiation and re-differentiation A number of factors, including South Africa’s recent restructuring of the higher education system, have resulted in processes of de-differentiation and a consequent redifferentiation. The de-differentiating factors have been the following: • The technikon sector (made up of institutions similar to polytechnics) was initially part of a clearly differentiated system in terms of both qualification levels and



knowledge types, with the right to award certificates and diplomas, but not degrees. This changed in 1993, when these institutions were granted degreeawarding status, although the naming of their qualifications (B.Tech, M.Tech and D.Tech) still remained distinctly different from qualifications traditionally associated with universities. In 2004, Minister of Education Kader Asmal, gave the technikons permission to call themselves ‘universities of technology’ in a move that enhanced their status in response to considerable pressure from the sector. The institutions interpreted this as an invitation to redefine their mission, to establish themselves more securely as ‘universities’ – and to develop substantial research agendas – this time in response to pressure from the state. Some technikons ceased to be either technikons or universities of technology: they were merged with existing universities and became part of the new ‘comprehensive’ universities. Most single function institutions have been absorbed into universities through a process of incorporation. This includes teacher training colleges, nursing and agricultural colleges.

Taken as a sum, these factors have contributed to a marked de-differentiation of the tertiary sector. But while institutional differentiation has diminished considerably, levels of internal differentiation have increased. Through mergers and incorporations, many universities have vastly expanded their range of academic programme offerings, their entry requirements and exit levels, and qualification types. Even institutions that have experienced neither mergers nor incorporations have expanded their range of offerings in relation to market demands and their own need to generate third stream income through the offering of tailor-made short courses for professional development. This is the process of re-differentiation – which happens within institutions. The process of restructuring the higher education system in South Africa has resulted in three types of higher education institution which can to some extent be distinguished from one another but which nonetheless exhibit many overlapping features. • There are eleven ‘traditional’ universities offering a mixture of discipline-based and professional degree qualifications. Some (but not all) have developed substantial research profiles in both basic and applied research, with extensive postgraduate programmes and fairly high levels of research output. Six universities of technology have a primary focus on technological, vocational, career-oriented and professional programmes, mainly at the certificate and diploma level, but they also offer degrees. Research is conducted in these institutions in applied fields, but at present, postgraduate programmes are very small and research output is low. There are six ‘comprehensive’ universities that are expected to offer a combination of all of the above types of programme and associated qualifications.



Distinctions between universities are in large part related to levels of inherited capacity and the niche focus areas of individual institutions, but in principle, there is far less to distinguish them from one another than in the past. The new Higher Education Qualifications Framework (HEQF) does not differentiate between them but gives all universities the right to offer any qualification in the higher education band. The state, nonetheless, uses its planning instruments to maintain some differentiation at the level of academic programmes, but the current funding formula, the most powerful of the state’s


instruments, is undifferentiated, and like the HEQF, is a common formula applied across the whole sector. All in all, the key drivers of differentiation, it seems, are no longer to be found in the state, but in the institutions themselves. Given that the funding of tertiary institutions to some extent invites ‘academic drift’ (traditional research outputs reap the highest financial benefits), it is not at all certain that internal drivers of differentiation will be sufficient to maintain the kind of diversity in the system that modern economies require (Van Vught, 2007). This is a critical challenge. 3: The binary divide and the knowledge divide The background outlined above provides a useful context to understand some of the dynamics and challenges faced by the recently formed ‘comprehensive’ universities, especially those formed by the merging of universities with technikons to become single institutional entities. The former institutional binary divide is breached by bringing together one institution from each side of the divide. Two of these new comprehensives are the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). But such mergers are not unproblematic. Challenges present themselves at two levels. The first is what may be called the strategic level: how does the institution position itself within the higher education system; how does it relate to its student market and to the labour market, employers and external sources of funding? How risky is it, both in relation to external perceptions and internal management, to straddle a vast array of different kinds of educational programme? Where are lines drawn and limits set? Amongst the variety of roles to be performed, what will the balance be between them, and where are strategic emphases to be placed? The second level of challenges is in relation to knowledge, and concerns how the curriculum is to be organised. As comprehensive universities, the NMMU and UJ are in a unique position in that they are able to offer a range of educational qualifications from the level of undergraduate certificates to postgraduate doctoral programmes, and a range of different types of knowledge from the technological, vocational, career-oriented and professional, to the general formative. The particular task that faces the two institutions is to develop new academic qualifications structures and programme profiles that will provide students with optimal opportunities for choosing the correct type of qualification to follow upon entering higher education, and for subsequently progressing through the various types of qualification that are available at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Creating comprehensive universities was supposed to meet a number of policy objectives, one of which was to enable articulation pathways to be built between career-focussed programmes and general formative programmes and between diploma and degree qualifications. This is not a simple matter, and indeed, linking career-focused programmes to general formative programmes is probably impossible as their purposes and curricular contents are vastly different. But while that bridge may be one too far to cross, it may be that there are other articulation possibilities that will make for greater mobility and flexibility for students in this kind of institution. Nevertheless, this has to be approached with great caution. Any discussion of knowledge divisions is complicated and muddied by ideological and status issues and debates. Most people readily accept the proposition that knowledge is hierarchically ordered, that children enter formal educational institutions and progress vertically through them (from primary to secondary school, and on to tertiary institutions)


and accumulate the associated levels of certification. But when it comes to institutions and their programmes on the same horizontal plane, issues of status and value often become acutely sensitive. While disciplinary boundaries and parameters are usually acknowledged between different knowledge fields, the differences between a “know how” kind of knowledge and a “know why” kind of knowledge in the same field are often contested. The claim of equality, in this context, is best understood as part of a value statement not a content statement. Various kinds of knowledge may be equally valuable but very different in content, form and orientation. There are also compelling arguments that the very notion of knowledge divisions is an ideological construction related to power and while there is much to be said for this, it is often associated with an idealised view that students should be able to flow freely along what is seen as an unbroken knowledge continuum. In this discourse, there is often a refusal to accept that there are any limits to knowledge progression in any field. The opposing discourse asserts that there are real discontinuities, divisions and ceilings in the various domains of knowledge. In the end, the only way to decide whether articulation (or transfer) is possible between one kind of qualification and another is through careful, painstaking analysis of curricula purposes and contents in a process which respects the knowledge demands and pedagogical approaches of different programmes. 4: Conclusion These debates are rooted in a long history in which certain kinds of knowledge (not always the same kinds) have been valued more highly than other kinds (Muller, 2008). What has become important in the new comprehensive universities is to get beyond the ideological debates and recognise that modern economies require a variety of different sorts of graduates with different kinds of skills. In the South African context of severe skills shortages that often lead to the expensive importation of human resources from other parts of the world, the diversity and range of academic offerings in higher education institutions needs to be strenuously maintained, protected and extended. This is the best way in which comprehensive universities can serve the interests of their students and their society. Bibliography Muller, Johan. 2008. “In search of coherence: A conceptual guide to curriculum planning for comprehensive universities.” Report commissioned by the SANTED Programme, CEPD. Scott, Peter. 2006. “New Patterns of Differentiation” Paper delivered at the CHER conference. Van Vught, Frans. 2007. “Diversity and Differentiation in higher education systems.” Paper delivered at the CHET conference, Cape Town.


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