HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: South Africa

September 23

Social License and Tuition Fees

So, to Johannesburg, where South African Education Minister (and Communist Party chief) Blade Nzimande finally announced the government’s decision on tuition for next year. He was in a tricky place: students are still demanding free tuition (see my previous story on the Fees Must Fall movement here) and will not accept a hike in fees. Meanwhile, universities are quite rightly feeling very stretched (it’s tough trying to maintain developed-world caliber institutions on a tax base which is only partially of the developed-world): with inflation running at around 6.5%, a fee freeze would amount to a substantial cut in real income.

So what did the minister do? He pulled an Ontario (or a Chile, or a Clinton, if you prefer). Tuition to rise, but students from families with income of R600,000 or less (roughly C$56,000, or US$43,000) would be exempt from paying the higher tuition. Who exactly was going to verify students’ income is a bit of a mystery since the cut-off for student financial aid in South Africa is considerably below R600,000 (a justified cause of further student complaint), but no matter. The basic idea was clear: the well-off will pay, the needy will not. The exact amount extra they would pay? That would be up to individual universities. They could set their own tuition but were strongly advised not to try increasing fees by more than 8%.

It took student unions less than five seconds to find this inadequate and to denounce the government. Several unions have threatened to boycott classes if their institution raised fees.

This raises an interesting question. Why, if students in Chile and Ontario are claiming victory (or partial victory at least) over their fee regimens, do South African students reject it? Well, context is everything. The key here is government legitimacy, or lack thereof.

Let’s take the Charest government in the Spring of 2012. The tuition fee increase that the government proposed was not excessive, and poorer students in fact might have been better off once tax credits were factored in. But absolutely no one paid the slightest bit of attention to the policy details. This was a government that had outstayed its welcome, and was badly tarred by corruption scandals (my favourite joke from that spring: what’s the difference between a student leader and a Montreal mafia boss? Only one of them has to forswear violence in order to get a meeting with the Minister of Education). It had a good, saleable plan, but literally no political capital on which to draw. The plan, as we all know, failed.

(By the by, this is why, if the Couillard government is going to move on tuition fees, it’s going to have to do it this year. Their window is closing.)

I could go down the list here. The big anti-tuition fee protests that got the President of South Korea to promise to reduce tuition in the spring of 2011? That was at the tail end of a profoundly unpopular Presidency (though to be fair in Korea it’s the rare presidency that doesn’t end in profound unpopularity). The Chilean tuition protests of 2011-2? Also at the end of an unpopular presidency. By contrast, the largest tuition fee increase in the history of the world – the increase announced for England in the fall of 2010 – was essentially met with only a single rally, in part because the measure was introduced by a brand-new government which led in the polls. Basically, you need “social license” in order to do something unpopular on tuition fees. Some governments have it, others don’t.

The South African government is in precisely this kind of legitimacy crisis right now. It is not a simple matter of President Zuma’s unpopularity, though his increasingly kleptocratic regime is profoundly unhelpful. It’s a bigger crisis of post-apartheid society. Formal racial equality exists, but equality in economic opportunity, equality in educational opportunity: those are still very far away and in many ways are not much better than they were 20 years ago. Today’s youth, born after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, no longer feel much loyalty to the ANC as the leader of “the struggle”. They simply see the party as being incompetent, corrupt, and incapable of delivering a better and more equal society.

And it’s that anger, that rage, which is driving the #feesmustfall movement. I think there’s a real chance this won’t end well; there has already been a serious uptick in violence on South African campuses. South Africa’s universities, unfortunately, may end up as collateral damage in a larger fight for the country’s future.

 

January 22

Higher Education in Developing Countries is Getting Harder

Here’s the thing about universities in developing countries: they were designed for a past age.  In Latin America, the dominant model was that of Napoleon’s Universite de France – a single university for an entire country, which was all the rage among progressives for the first half of the nineteenth century.  In Africa (and parts of Asia), it was a colonial model – whatever the University of London was doing in the late 1950s, that’s basically what universities (the bigger ones, anyway) in Anglophone Africa are set up to do now.  We think of universities as being about teaching and research; by and large, in the global south, universities were about training future governing elite and transmitting ideology.

Of course, for a long time now, governments and foreign donors have been trying to nudge institutions in the direction of modernization.  By and large, the preference seems to be something like a 1990s Anglo/American model: market-focused for undergraduate studies, more of an emphasis of knowledge creation, etc.   This has been a tough shift, and not just because of the usual academic foot-dragging.

The problems are manifold.  If you want research, you need PhDs.  In much of Africa and Latin America, less than half of full-time academics have them.  And because only PhDs can give PhDs that’s a pretty serious bottleneck.  A few years ago, South Africa announced that it wanted to triple the number of PhDs in the country.  Great, said the universities.  Who’s going to train them?

And of course you need money, but that’s in exceedingly short supply.  Money for equipment, for instance (quick, how many electron microscopes are there in sub-Saharan African universities?  Take out South Africa, and I’m pretty sure the answer is zero).  But also money for materials, dissemination, conferences, etc.  In some African flagship universities, close to 80% of money for research comes from foreign donors.  That money is welcome, of course, but it means your research programs are totally at the whim of changing fads in international aid programs.

As for being market-focused: how does that work in countries where 80% of the formal economy is dominated by government and parastatals?  What’s even the point of building up a good reputation for graduating employable students when public sector HR managers aren’t allowed to discriminate between universities when hiring?

Now, making things worse are some fairly worrying macro-economic trends.  Not the commodities collapse, thought that doesn’t help.  No, it’s the secular change in the way development is actually happening; specifically, that countries are starting to de-industrialize at ever lower levels of manufacturing intensity (a phenomenon that economist Dani Rodrik explains very well here).  To put it bluntly, countries are no longer going to be able to get rich through export-driven manufacturing.  There aren’t going to be any more Taiwans or Koreas.  In future, if countries are going to get rich, it’s going to be through some kind of services and knowledge-intensive products.

This, to put it mildly, places enormous pressure on countries to have institutions that are knowledge-intensive and market-oriented.  When human capital trained for services industries become the only route for development, universities become vital to national success in a way they simply are not in a society that already has a major manufacturing base.  Simply put, no good universities, no development.  And that’s a world first because the developed world – including China – got rich before it got good universities.  It’s simply an unprecedented position for higher education anywhere.

But it’s a job for which these universities are simply not ready.  In Africa at least, even when the nature of the challenge is fully understood, universities are neither funded nor staffed adequately for the task; not only are their own internal cultures insufficiently entrepreneurial, but also they simply lack entrepreneurial partners with whom to work on knowledge and commercialization projects.

Getting a whole new set of challenges when you’ve barely got to grips with the old ones is a tall order. It’s a structural issue that international development and co-operation agencies need to think about, and invest in more than they currently do.

November 12

Explaining the #FeesMustFall Movement

One of the more interesting policy debacles in higher education this year has been the fracas over tuition fees in South Africa, which has led to what some are calling the biggest set of anti-government protests since the end of apartheid.  Here’s what you need to know:

The protests began when universities announced fee hikes for the coming year.  On average, the fee hikes were in the 6% range, which was relatively modest given a persistent inflation rate of just under 5%, and additional cost pressures due to a falling rand (the rand is 14 = 1 USD at the moment, up from 8 = 1 USD three years ago).   This kind of increase is not unusual in South Africa, but for a variety of reasons, this year the increases brought students out into the streets in very large numbers.

There were, near as I can tell, three factors at work.  The first is generalized discontent with the ANC government (animosity that is by no means restricted to students).  Though the party can still win over 50% of the vote in elections, a lot of that support is residual loyalty for its fight against apartheid rather than approval of current policies; and since today’s students were mostly born after Mandela was released from prison, they feel less loyalty to the party than do older South Africans.  Economic growth is fading (partly due to falling commodity prices, partly due to government incompetence, particularly on energy and power generation), which means no progress on persistently high unemployment among blacks.  And if there is one file where the government has underperformed the most over the past twenty years, it’s education.  The problem is worse in K-12 than  in universities (though colleges are a right mess), but the repeated failure to sufficiently increase expenditure in higher education is a persistent failure.

The second issue is with respect to student aid.  Though the government has massively increased outlays, it has also massively increased loan losses.  Up until about seven years ago, the National Student Financial Aid System (NSFAS) had the continent’s best record of loan repayment (about 60%).  Then, the government decided – on what many regard as quite spurious grounds – to make it harder for NSFAS to collect the loans, and repayment plummeted to about 20%.  This was good news for graduates of course: more money for them; but it effectively raised the price of increasing access.  One of the casualties of that was an inability to expand  middle-class families’ access to loans, a group who subsequently feel very squeezed.

The third factor was an uptick in student militancy this past March with the #RhodesMustFall campaign.  This started at the University of Cape Town where students wanted to remove a statue of the arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes (they succeeded).  This morphed into a wider set of protests about the progress universities have made in transforming themselves since 1994, in particular with respect to the progress of black academics.

So with all this kindling, the relatively small sparks of what vice-chancellors thought was a run-of-the-mill tuition increase turned into a major conflagration, which went under the heading #FeesMustFall (a play on the earlier Rhodes campaign).  At first the government tried to straight-arm the students, with the Higher Education minster (and Communist party chief) Blade Nzimandize claiming maladroitly that he would start his own #StudentsMustFall campaign.  When that didn’t work, the ANC began trying to co-opt the protest, claiming students’ views as their own.  Eventually the protests grew so large that President Zuma eventually froze all fees for a year, and compensated institutions to the tune of 80% of the cost of the freeze.  But the ANC has also taken steps to give itself unprecedented authority to massively intrude on universities’ autonomy, so that it can more directly control costs and remove inconvenient administrators.

The fee freeze took some of the sting out of the protests, but it also emboldened some protestors who want to see South Africa move to a free fee system.  Given that participation rates for whites are between three and four times higher for blacks, this is a curiously regressive idea (and may explain why whites were seemingly so much more prominent in the #feesmustfall protests than in those for #rhodesmustfall).  The head of South Africa’s Centre for Higher Education Trust, Nico Cloete, skewered the idea in a University World News column this weekend (read it here; it’s long but very good), saying rightly that in a society as unequal as South Africa, “affordable higher education for all” is a necessary goal, but “free higher education for all” is morally wrong.

Which is dead on, frankly.  Fix student aid so the poor get more grant aid and the middle-class get more loan aid, sure.  More money for universities to maintain quality?  Sure (South Africa has an amazing set of universities for a middle-income country, but that’s at risk over the long-term).  But spending more money to make it free for the already highly privileged?  South Africa can and should do better than that.

April 10

Better Know a Higher Ed System: South Africa (Part 2)

A couple of weeks ago, I laid out some of the basic issues in South African higher education.  Today, I want to focus on two particular sets of institutional issues that I think make the country’s policy landscape quite distinctive.

The first area has to do with how institutions raise income.  Sub-Saharan African countries tend to fall into two groups: those that are over-reliant on government funding (most of Francophone and Lusophone Africa), and those that are reliant on private fees paid mainly to private institutions or through dual-track tuition systems at public universities (most of Anglophone Africa, especially East Africa).  What you don’t tend to see in Africa are universities relying on self-generated non-fee income to fund themselves.  Here’s where South African universities’ money comes from:

Figure 1: South African Universities’ Income by Source (Source: Vital Stats, Public Higher Education 2012, Council on Higher Education, South Africa)

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One could quibble around the edges with this: if you count all the money government spends on student aid, the state stream is considerably bigger (and the tuition stream smaller), but the really amazing thing is the third-stream income, which comes neither from government or students. At 31%, it’s pretty much the highest percentage of anywhere in the world.

Figure 2: Third-Stream Income as a Percentage of Total University Income, South Africa and Selected OECD Countries (Source: Vital Stats, OECD Education at a Glance 2104, Table B3.1)

unnamed-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interestingly, South African institutions are achieving this without a significant tradition of charitable giving.  This isn’t a US private college situation where the money is all coming from endowments; according to a 2009 survey, endowments account for only about 11% of the money.  About a third of it comes from contracts, and over 55% of it comes from things like sales of service.

Sure, the big old (sotto voce: “white”) institutions like Wits and UCT do better on this measure than others (48% and 40%, respectively), but even the poorest institutions (the universities of technology) make 15% of their income this way – same as Japan and Australia.  That’s evidence of a very high degree of entrepreneurialism.  Admirable.

The other interesting thing about South African institutions at the moment is the attention being paid to curriculum.  As I noted previously, South Africa is plagued by drop-outs; only about 50% of starters complete their studies.  The culprit, by general agreement, is under-preparedness of students; there is an articulation gap between secondary and post-secondary (which makes initial transitions difficult) and curricula in many subjects contain transition points that takes for granted certain knowledge and abilities that all students may not have.

(Interestingly, while there are wide gaps in primary and secondary schooling available to Africans and whites, the dropout problem is only partly related to this.  Though there are differences in completion rates by “population group” [the preferred way to say “race” in South Africa] they actually aren’t that wide: 6-year graduation rates for Africans are 47%, compared to 59% for whites.  Compare that to the US, where the rates are 40% for Blacks and 62% for whites.)

So, your country’s system has an articulation problem, a transition problem and – to top it off – worries about how well current education is preparing students for the future labour market.  What do you do?  Well, the current preferred solution to this problem (outlined in this document) is to lengthen periods of study:  that is, to move from a system of mostly three-year degrees to a system of mostly four-year degrees.  And this isn’t simply a matter of adding a base foundation year – what’s being contemplated is a wholesale re-writing of curricula from the ground-up.  In some ways, it’s a more daunting task than the Bologna curriculum re-write, which often involved little more than slicing five-year degrees into a three-year Bachelor’s degree, and a two-year Master’s.

It’s not entirely clear whether this will happen – cost implications are significant, and there isn’t a lot of money in the kitty in Pretoria.  But having gone through our own debate about degree-lengths a few years ago, it’s refreshing to see a discussion driven by desired learning outcomes and curriculum analysis rather than vigorous hand-waving from politicians.

South African universities have taken extraordinary measures to close the funding gap;  if they were able to take similarly bold measures to tackle the attainment gap, the payoff would be profound.

March 27

Better Know a Higher Ed System: South Africa

So, I was in South Africa last week talking to people from various ends of the higher education system.  It’s a fascinating place, which is attempting the almost-unimaginably difficult task of creating a single, functional system of education from the wreckage of apartheid.

One key aspect of contemporary South Africa is that genuine political competition is still some ways off.  Opposition parties exist, and the ruling alliance is experiencing some strain due to the increasing unhappiness of the main trade union, COSATU, but the fact of the matter is it’s still almost inconceivable the ANC could lose power before 2024 at the earliest.  Absent competition, quality of service delivery tends to suffer because government simply doesn’t have its feet to the fire very often.  And education is most certainly suffering. In fact, K-12 education is widely pointed to as the file where the ANC has performed the most poorly.  Obviously, the legacy of the apartheid-era Bantu education policies place a terrible burden on the system, but nevertheless when surveying the education system as a whole, words like “abysmal” and “train wreck” do spring to mind.

Only about half of all students finish twelve years of high school (most drop out between year 10 and year 12).  Of those, only about three-quarters pass the matriculation exams.  Of those, only thirty percent achieve a sufficiently good matric that they qualify (on paper at least) to attend university.  The result is that only about one-in-eight youth is actually eligible to attend university.  And of course within that one-eighth, whites and Indians are significantly over-represented.  Participation rates for whites are up around 50%; for Africans, they languish at around 10%.

Dropout rates within university are also a problem.  At best, only about half of students complete their three-year course of studies within six years, meaning that at the end of this very leaky pipeline, one finds an attainment rate of around 6%; nowhere near what is needed to run an advanced economy.  As a result, South Africa’s economy is not advanced in any sort of comprehensive way – what it has is a thin sliver of a developed economy, laid on top of a much larger economy indistinguishable from what you’d see in the rest of Africa.  If you can imagine dropping New Zealand into the middle of Kenya, you’ve more or less got the picture.

New Zealand dropped onto Kenya is a reasonably accurate description of the university system, too.  There are a handful of formerly-white institutions (Witswatersrand University, Stellenbosch University, University of Cape Town, etc.), which are basically research universities (only really badly funded).  However, a majority of institutions are either historically black or recently-merged (more about mergers next week), which often seek to emulate research institutions, but haven’t even vaguely got the human or financial resources to act that way.  Shouldn’t they differentiate, you say?  In theory, perhaps, but here you again run into the apartheid legacy: how can anyone argue with a straight face for a system where the only “top” universities (i.e. research intensive ones) are the ones that are historically white?

The money problems are real, too.  South Africa’s GDP per capita is about the same as China’s ($6,500 US).  But China can support lots of world-class research on that budget because most of its profs don’t speak English that well, and hence have limited mobility.  It can pay them well below world rates, and so there is lots left over for lovely new infrastructure, labs, etc.  South Africa can’t get away with that.  A significant fraction of its academics are quite mobile and liable to leave for Australia, the US, or wherever, at the drop of a hat.  Their pay rates therefore have to be at least marginally competitive with those of much, much richer countries, which leaves very little left over for all the other stuff universities need to be excellent.

No simple answers here, but lots of challenges – and increasingly lots of interesting solutions, too.  I’ll have more on this next week.

The first area has to do with how institutions raise income.  Sub-Saharan African countries tend to fall into two groups: those that are over-reliant on government funding (most of Francophone and Lusophone Africa), and those that are reliant on private fees paid mainly to private institutions or through dual-track tuition systems at public universities (most of Anglophone Africa, especially East Africa).  What you don’t tend to see in Africa are universities relying on self-generated non-fee income to fund themselves.  Here’s where South African universities’ money comes from:

Figure 1: South African Universities’ Income by Source (Source: Vital Stats, Public Higher Education 2012, Council on Higher Education, South Africa)

unnamed

One could quibble around the edges with this: if you count all the money government spends on student aid, the state stream is considerably bigger (and the tuition stream smaller), but the really amazing thing is the third-stream income, which comes neither from government or students. At 31%, it’s pretty much the highest percentage of anywhere in the world.

Figure 2: Third-Stream Income as a Percentage of Total University Income, South Africa and Selected OECD Countries (Source: Vital Stats, OECD Education at a Glance 2104, Table B3.1)

unnamed-1

Interestingly, South African institutions are achieving this without a significant tradition of charitable giving.  This isn’t a US private college situation where the money is all coming from endowments; according to a 2009 survey, endowments account for only about 11% of the money.  About a third of it comes from contracts, and over 55% of it comes from things like sales of service.

Sure, the big old (sotto voce: “white”) institutions like Wits and UCT do better on this measure than others (48% and 40%, respectively), but even the poorest institutions (the universities of technology) make 15% of their income this way – same as Japan and Australia.  That’s evidence of a very high degree of entrepreneurialism.  Admirable.

The other interesting thing about South African institutions at the moment is the attention being paid to curriculum.  As I noted previously, South Africa is plagued by drop-outs; only about 50% of starters complete their studies.  The culprit, by general agreement, is under-preparedness of students; there is an articulation gap between secondary and post-secondary (which makes initial transitions difficult) and curricula in many subjects contain transition points that takes for granted certain knowledge and abilities that all students may not have.

(Interestingly, while there are wide gaps in primary and secondary schooling available to Africans and whites, the dropout problem is only partly related to this.  Though there are differences in completion rates by “population group” [the preferred way to say “race” in South Africa] they actually aren’t that wide: 6-year graduation rates for Africans are 47%, compared to 59% for whites.  Compare that to the US, where the rates are 40% for Blacks and 62% for whites.)

So, your country’s system has an articulation problem, a transition problem and – to top it off – worries about how well current education is preparing students for the future labour market.  What do you do?  Well, the current preferred solution to this problem (outlined in this document) is to lengthen periods of study:  that is, to move from a system of mostly three-year degrees to a system of mostly four-year degrees.  And this isn’t simply a matter of adding a base foundation year – what’s being contemplated is a wholesale re-writing of curricula from the ground-up.  In some ways, it’s a more daunting task than the Bologna curriculum re-write, which often involved little more than slicing five-year degrees into a three-year Bachelor’s degree, and a two-year Master’s.

It’s not entirely clear whether this will happen – cost implications are significant, and there isn’t a lot of money in the kitty in Pretoria.  But having gone through our own debate about degree-lengths a few years ago, it’s refreshing to see a discussion driven by desired learning outcomes and curriculum analysis rather than vigorous hand-waving from politicians.

South African universities have taken extraordinary measures to close the funding gap;  if they were able to take similarly bold measures to tackle the attainment gap, the payoff would be profound.