Report from #Heltasa2017 workshop Unbundling Higher Education, Part I: The Changing Nature of Public Universities through Public-Private Partnerships in Teaching & Learning Provision

On the 21st-24th of November, Durban University of Technology hosted the annual meeting of the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of South Africa (HELTASA). As part of our impact and engagement strategy, three members of our team – Dr Rebecca Swartz (UCT) and Prof Neil Morris and Dr Mariya Ivancheva (University of Leeds) participated in the conference by offering a pre-session workshop “Unbundling Higher Education: Exploring Models in an Unequal Landscape”. The workshop aimed to generate discussion around some key questions of our project that would allow a two-way engagement with participants. This allowed us to offer some insights from our research findings and where our project sees some advancements and challenges happening at the intersection of unbundling, marketisation and digitalisation in South African Higher Education. We were also eager to hear from participants and gather data on their perceptions of these processes from the position of their institutions.

This first blog post offers a brief overview of the answers which our participants – mostly academics, academic development and education technology workers from South African universities – offered to the questions of the shifting public private divide in public higher education in the country. In our second blog  we will speak on how participants saw the influence of digital technologies and curricular disaggregation on teaching and learning provision.

In the first part of our workshop we asked about the main purpose of the public university today: Is the core business of the university changing as a result of digital technology or marketisation? Do participants know of examples of public universities working with private companies to offer education? What do they think are the advantages and drawbacks of these partnerships?

Teaching was often the first area which participants identified, even if this term was often replaced with others that connected tuition and learning with the job market: “skilling students”, “producing or preparing resourceful people”, “training students to ask the right questions” or giving them “epistemological access through encouraging their creativity and forward-thinking” were all terms placing teaching and learning at the core of the public university. Given the high youth unemployment in SA, there was a discussion on the need for more direct links between skills acquired at university and the needs of the economy. Some participants felt that HEIs were more focused on content rather than the development of practical skills.  Others emphasised the need for universities to create engaged citizens as well as being vocationally oriented. Decolonising the curriculum was also mentioned as central to the South African teaching and learning debate, but the question of its connection to more ‘practical’ issues of skilling and employability remains to be explored. HEIs were discussed by participants as resisting change and pushing back against growth by becoming ever more exclusive with their entry requirements. The question  of how we teach, and how we teach with technology to match the new demand was seen as crucial especially given the need of students to be up to date with modern technologies, drones, surveillance, new media etc.

Another take on the core business of the university focused on the question of research. Tension between the teaching, learning and social impact functions of the university was felt in most South African public universities. Participants discussed how research leads to career advancement and often research is adopted for this reason, which does not challenge the culture or accepted wisdom of the institution. Participants emphasised the importance of transmitting knowledge beyond the boundaries of the institution to industry as well as to local communities. Most of them insisted that in this new role of academics should stops being just teaching or research staff and starts being the facilitation of knowledge production in cooperation with students and communities. Research was also seen to be increasingly ‘mechanical’: while it used to be about generating new knowledge, it was increasingly seen as gathering already existing knowledge due to the wide availability of information on the internet.

The public university was critiqued by participants as adopting a ‘band aid’ approach to the crisis in higher education, and not able to adapt to change. To adapt to new demands, universities were to broaden the scope of their work and take technologies on board. There was a clear recognition that there was a disconnect between the government drive for increased enrolment and push for massification of sector, and the increased graduate expectations of teaching delivery with instant results. Increasingly business processes are also seen as driving change in the sector with corporate actors seen as closer to public universities than ever. Participants had different opinions on this topic, some positive about the link between universities and employers, others negative about who dictates the agenda and content of universities and what control they have over the negotiation with businesses.

Participants were knowledgeable of the partnerships with GetSmarter, Academic Partnerships, Unilever, and Open Learning Group in which companies would do marketing, enrolment, and student support, while the universities would be engaged in teaching and content supply. They also knew of some modules shared with Pearson Institute and UNISA, some of which were distance learning courses. There were also a lot of examples that participants knew of, in which universities had more traditional partnership with companies that would advise universities on curricula particularly in professional areas as health, law, and accounting.

Mapping: The participants mentioned the need of a proper and detailed map of the existence and the impact of the partnerships. This is one of the tasks that we are currently working on it the project.

The benefit of partnerships for students were discussed in two ways. On the one hand the question of advantaging students was central to their concerns and this they saw happening as enhanced apprenticeship opportunities. Partnerships for online learning were see as able to address infrastructure disparities and improve student experience. On the other hand, participants identified a potential risk of exploitation of students as there was no clear link with employers or even when there was one, there was an experience of students trained online are taken into unpaid internships which people trained in usual programs would be recruited as employees or into paid labour, so online students were seen by employers as cheap labour in internship schemes. At the same time, participants cautioned that certain companies had pre-designed traditional ‘type’ of student they wanted to recruit rather than being more open to new types of students and skilled professionals entering the job market.

When it came to benefits of partnerships for universities at large and their role in the partnerships, some participants believed that senior management saw the use of private companies as ‘quick solutions’ to the crisis of the university. They criticised management for handing over responsibility not only of marketing and student support but also of curricula to private companies especially with digital technologies, potentially compromising control over academic quality. They were concerned that capitalism and its process of marketisation of HE have changed the balance of power:  while previously, universities went to look for partners because they were in the position of power as they were well funded, they are increasingly financially vulnerable and unable to dictate the terms of these partnerships.

There was, thus, an important concern about who benefits from partnerships. It was related to the perception of private partners operating like Trojan horses: revealing their philanthropic promises but not their profit-making goals. Some participants were concerned about the role of personal connections between senior management and external partners which overshadows questions of merit and quality. Participants felt companies should be more transparent regarding their goals in partnering with universities, including being open about the histories and ethics of their firms, which might be in tension with those of the university.

Participants also insisted that private companies as well as public universities should be more engaged with the needs of the local community where courses are provided: a difficult task when it comes to online learning programs that recruit students well beyond the usual catchment area of traditional universities with residential degrees. The mismatch between the rapid growth of the private HE sector and the slow and tedious process of regulation and accreditation through CHE was seen as an issue that needs addressing in the near future.