The Council on Higher Education’s ‘shape and size’ document:

One view from the University of the Western Cape

Speaker: Prof Peter Vale (Acting Vice Rector, Academic Affairs, University of the Western Cape)

Respondent: Prof Ian Bunting (Council on Higher Education)

Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust forum meeting

Cape Town, 31 August 2000





Harold Wolpe was not my professor and I did not read his work seriously before he came back to South Africa. Harold and I were speaking in a queue once and he said we have underestimated the power of the state. I learnt more political science from him there than I had before.

I have no qualifications to be at this table speaking on this subject. I am a novice at managing universities, and have no qualifications in education. I have 20 months of on-the-job training since I was drafted into this position by the UWC Senate.

The national policy is confused and confusing. I can see the document through only one set of eyes. There are as many opinions on the policy as there are academics at UWC. Why should we engage with the process and this document? One dean said we should not engage with the document because it was poorly written and the writers too highly paid. This is actually nervousness about a tiered approach to higher education.

There are four reasons to engage:

·       The system is in crisis. A strength of the document is that its second chapter makes a case for higher education in South Africa. Anybody who cares for the system must engage.

·       We must help the Department of Education.

·       The document has created footholds beyond neo-liberalism.

·       Boycotting does not serve the interests of UWC.

I see a number of issues driving change in :

·       The upstream state of higher education is caused by the downstream crisis in the schools. Higher education as it stands is trying to do too much – it is bringing new people into the system as well as trying to create new knowledge of a world class.

·       The market debate – there are too many ‘sames’ chasing the same students, market reforms are not sufficient.

·       The SAPSE formula is 20 years old, but is still in use.

·       The profession is not appealing – it is hard to get blacks (and others) into higher education as a profession.

·       There are too many discourses and fancy ideas running around in higher education, too many models borrowed from New Zealand and Australia, too many South African Qualifications Authority-type bodies.

·       The Department of Education has a profound capacity crisis. Too many of its consultants are technicists when we need social and political responses.

·       Some institutions are rich and others poor.

·       HIV/AIDS will have a devastating effect on students and a sector of our staff.

·       The CHE report is choking higher education. But the document provides footholds beyond neo-liberalism. It provides space for alternative mission-driven institutions. In broader perspective, the document offers a more differentiated approach, wider circumstances in education. For far too long, the debate has been framed by neo liberalism which does not allow for equity.

·       The impact of information technology is fraught with opportunities and threats. The outgoing president of Harvard made it the richest private institution in the world after the Catholic Church. The university does not want an administrator to replace him, but an IT specialist.

·       The Employment Equity Act has had a serious implication for staff inside universities. There has never been so much mobility of staff between historically disadvantaged institutions and their historically advantaged counterparts. There used to be three kinds of South African universities –the liberal English universities, the Afrikaans universities, and the black universities – but there has been a massive movement of staff across institutions. In UWC before we would never have had any staff going to the University of Pretoria, now several of our staff have moved there.

·       There is an explosion of theoretical debates and most issues are up for grabs. Established knowledge systems of state, race and community are in crisis.

·       There has been an invasion of foreign universities offering courses in South Africa. It is easy to pick something off the Internet.

The point of talking about these drivers is that we are designing universities where none of us have ever been students. We are now remaking universities every four years.

UWC’s responses to these issues in the last six years has been from Marx to the market, from liberation politics to a new form of differentiation. UWC was a front for the struggle, financially well-off, and was guaranteed a stream of students. It had a strong and secure cadre of leadership. We had a tremendous depth of leadership among people waiting to go into universities. We thought we would be the national university after democracy. We had played an innovative role in university management. Now our fundraising base is thin, we have serious middle management and union problems, and student problems.

Since 1994, given the strength of what I have described, it will be immensely difficult to re-establish the intellectual project. We had a permanent leak of staff. In the ‘uhuru’ raid we lost 15 people including Kader Asmal and Jakes Gerwel, then we lost Rob Davies and others who went into policy-making positions, approximately 25 people. There was confusion over the drift of discourse in higher education. We did not keep our ears to the ground and lost the plot. As GEAR asserted itself, UWC lost major opportunities for, for example, foreign funding. We had a high turnover of leadership. We were drawn into the politics of historically disadvantaged institutions, the complex political issues, the camps and cramps of that period. Our patterns of student enrolment have changed and people have consistently got the number of students wrong. Parliament thought we would have 6000 students by 2002, our numbers have dropped, but it is not a crisis. We made some poor management decisions – a superhuman effort was required, but our effort was prosaic and pedestrian.

UWC is the best located university, we have an extraordinary reputation, we have pools of great strength, and our commitment to the advancement of community has been unfailing. This is a commitment to a different kind of education. We have the strongest and potentially influential alumnus body in the country. The alumni of the University of Cape Town and the University of the Witwatersrand are rich and widely spread. UWC alumni include not only people at the highest level of government, but also the ordinary people. Of the 31 universities in the country, we are the only one which has reinvented itself, from Bush College to the Intellectual Home of the Left. UWC has to turn to these strengths at this time.

Now, to the ‘size and shape’ document. I copied this information from David Woods of Rhodes about the size and shape requirements for the proposed types of institution.

Information about size and shape – how UWC compares with benchmarks in the CHE document

Type of institution

Full time equivalent

% Masters and Doctoral students

% staff with PhDs*

% research paper per staff member

Minimum % distribution of academic disciplines














Selected postgraduate research








Comprehensive postgraduate research








UWC 1999

















FTE subsidy








* full-time only

Renfrew Christie and I agree there is too much jargon in the document. It is managerialist, technicist, proposing the creation of a three-tiered system: bedrock institutions, selected postgraduate research, and comprehensive postgraduate research.

I am in favour of its suggestion of a 4-year Bachelor’s degree, but there is a cost implication. One of the most important things is the idea of mission-directed institutions. This recedes very quickly into the background, but this aspect is very important. I am influenced by Saleem Badat’s comments on documents which are symbolic vs documents which are substantive.

The document calls for an iterative process (which it says means ‘engage and argue’). Does this have legs, how long will the debate go on? It goes into class distinctions, upper and lower class is the biggest enemy of moving the debate forwards.

The document is silent on the core issue – funding. It is also silent on how the process should be driven forward – perhaps we could get a World Bank loan. Hungary took a World Bank loan of $300 million over a ten-year period to reform its universities.

The ideas of combinations and mergers between institutions are ill-conceived and not worked through. It is a pity these ideas were included.

Will Rhodes, which is a strong institution be punished by being made a bedrock institution because it is small? The document clearly situates us in the middle category (selected postgraduate research) as we take in poorly prepared students as well as produce world class research. One of our professors published on the gene which causes blindness (retinitis pigmentosa) in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics. This has been described as the most significant paper from Africa this year.

Our development trajectory will enable UWC to remain engaged with community, to embark on public-private partnerships, and interface with NGOs. We are engaged in a mission-directed approach. This will distinguish us from other institutions, be engaged with community, create serious knowledge, and bring students through the system. Quality gets the highest attention at UWC.

I have some worries about universities in general – the too-easy appeal from the Ministry of Education for neo-liberal and market options in education, a technicist approach rather than one which deals with the philosophical and social issues. Government will aim to straight-jacket universities by stealth, for example, through the Higher Education Amendment Bill which wants to give the minister the power to approve overdrafts, among other things.

Another worrying thing is the absence of leadership in universities. Twelve jobs for deputy chancellors of universities have been advertised recently. It is difficult work, and it is hard to find qualified black staff. One of the important things that outsiders like the British Council can do is to help people inside universities to become leaders. We risk losing what we have built for so long unless the calibre of leadership improves.



I am surprised to hear Peter Vale is so supportive of the CHE report. I find the document tries to do too many things. The ideas of ‘size and shape’ are loaded. Certain members of the CHE had it as a pet project to fix up the size and shape of the system, but these ideas meant different things to different people.

I am a consultant in the Department of Education, working in a position which they are not able to fill. I was the technicist in the department. The information which led to the size and shape classification comes from my data, but the drafting team did not get the nuances right. I disapprove of what they have done with it. Mamphela Ramphele has been arguing that the size and shape must be fixed. When the CHE presented its first annual report to the Minister, it promised him a Christmas present in the form of the size and shape report. He rejected the report they submitted to him in December 1999. What they did in this report, in effect, was to draft terms of reference for a new national CHE. The Education White Paper principles needed to be reviewed, and they wanted to give the Minister a framework to fix the size and shape of the system. They asked for an audit, a qualitative study, of staff quality over about two years. Asmal said he did not want that and gave the terms of reference to the size and shape group in February 2000. He said a general framework is not appropriate – a Minister who accepts a general framework is one who is not prepared to act, and he wanted action.

If this document is symbolic, not substantive then this is not what Asmal asked for. The Minister said there is a general impatience with higher education, he still has to justify the expense on higher education, but there is no delivery. The authors of the December 99 document said they wanted a labour market study. Asmal said he wanted a short report no longer than 50 or 60 pages (the actual report is 69 pages).

The Minister mentioned the kinds of difficulties he perceived. Half a dozen institutions are technically bankrupt, there are major migrations of students from certain institutions, most of the Department of Education’s time is taken up fighting fires. The top management and structure is sucked into crises, so bigger issues get lost. Other issues include satellite campuses, foreign institutions coming into the country. Asmal wanted the size and shape group to indicate who should do what, even which institutions should deliver what, that they could consider mergers, but the task should not be seen as an exercise in rationalising historically disadvantaged institutions. He said if the group was to consider any mergers, no institutions could be closed down and no higher education activities could cease in any location.

His brief was the following – not a framework, not one focused on any particular sector, but one which focuses on the sector. The first April 2000 report was a disaster. What the committee did was to produce a short discussion document saying in general terms there is a major crisis in higher education, pass rates are bad, enrolments are declining, evaluation is poor, there is unregulated growth in the private sector, and there is a poor diversity ratio across staff and students. The report presented a classification of institutional types, saying differentiation would be based on the kinds of degrees institutions would be allowed to offer, and degrees should be done over four years, among other things. Most institutions rejected the report. They asked how this solves problems and said it was encouraging elitism. A few universities thought it was OK, including UCT. Technikons accepted it. They probably thought they would become universities of technology.

The new document is no longer the qualification structure, but the same difficulties arise. My objection is how a classification of institutions will solve their problems. Calling them bedrock institutions or another category does not help. The Minister wanted a programme of action. In the report the authors speak about combinations rather than mergers – there could be mergers and collaborative partnerships. But in parts they say combinations will lead to fewer institutions.

If the scale of the problems is put aside, if the fundamental mood is changing the apartheid geography, it must be about mergers. Classification of institutions does not help. The report should have said combinations and mergers should come first, before moving on to classification. The data used to classify institutions was collected in 1998. The chair of the task team wanted international benchmarks, for example, how many PHDs and so on. It is clear in the literature that institutional classification must be relative to your policy objective, you classify within that. There is no magic to numbers of, for example, PHDs in institutions. The technicists fed the information into a computer programme into which variables were plugged to come up with a classification. The task team’s work got messier and messier. It was highly technicist, driven by what people wanted to see. If they did not like what came out, they would adjust variables to affect the outcome.

I don’t think this document works. The most benefit I can see in a classification framework is if it can be a regulatory framework for a limited time. During a period of reshaping you may need a regulatory framework. At the moment it is a totally aspiration-driven thing rather than being mission-driven. It may stop universities from offering certain degrees and, to this extent, it is draconian.



Mervyn Bennun: When I started working at an English university it was nice to have a PhD, it is regrettable that so many staff with PhDs are so appalling. I don’t have a PhD and it never bothered me.

Peter Vale: Ian must tell us where to go from here. This is the central question.

AnnMarie Wolpe: There is a disjuncture between policy and implementation.

Joe Muller: Ian has told us that what Peter celebrates as the end of neo-liberalism, Ian wants to soften, but I don’t hear Ian saying classifications are wrong.

Ian Bunting: Whether we like it or not there is a classification of higher educational institutions in South Africa, they fall into distinct groups. The issue is do you want to reinforce those groupings in law? This is what the CHE wants. By happenstance, all the big white urban institutions with medical schools are at the top, the University of Durban-Westville and UWC are the only black universities which fall into the second category [‘selected postgraduate research’]. Every other black institution is a bedrock institution. No technikon is above the bedrock. The proposed system replicates the apartheid origins of our system. The classification was based on a snapshot from 1998. [Under this system] you could say to UCT ‘you can offer any PhD you want’, you could say to UWC ‘you can offer some PhDs’, and you could say to the bedrock institutions ‘no PHDs’. The task group had too many policy goals, too many prejudices and too much tweaking. How is being called a bedrock institution going to help you with your pass rates? I don’t even like a regulatory framework. If you have one, let it reign in the crazy aspirations such as ‘first choice education institution in Africa for….’. Having a dream is fine, but it does not help you deal with where you are at the moment. Let’s not stop bedrock institutions from offering certain courses or doing research.

Rob Turrell: Can we draw out implications of the classification for funding? What is implied? How about getting a World Bank loan, like the recent one announced for an upgrade of hospitals in this country, presumably for the specific aspect of restructuring. For example, mergers would have capital one-off capital expenditure. What are the costs outside the range of the fiscus? You mentioned the drivers for change – if you took a World Bank loan, no doubt the World Bank policy would have to come through.

AnnMarie: In 1994/95 I did a study on historically disadvantaged universities. Fort Hare for example is situated in Alice where there are no facilities for staff or students - no cinemas, no doctors, no restaurants, no optometrists etc. How can you have a university where there are no external facilities? At Turfloop one woman spoke about corruption, money that had disappeared, how the neighbouring location was furnished with furniture from the university. The books in that library had no relevance to the present day.

There are a number of structural features. How can student and staff performance be addressed. There is pressure to enter into the global economy. Another factor is the content of knowledge being imparted. Further there is a world crisis in terms of the quality of universities, and the lowering of standards. We are stuck with coping with inequalities, and enrolment figures have diminished at many institutions. Classification of institutions does not deal with concrete problems such as these.

Ian Bunting: One of the difficulties is bankruptcies. One institution spent the last of its money on salaries in July – it has an horrific bank overdraft. This is the scale of hassle that the Department of Education agonises about. Bank overdrafts are not guaranteed. If one bank calls in one loan from one institution, the entire pack of cards will fall. Some institutions are surviving on bank overdrafts, spending millions on interest, their student numbers are going down, so their fees base goes down, and their subsidies go down.

Joe Muller: Mergers are on the table. Saleem Badat is saying ‘read the intent’. It is a lifeboat strategy, pairing weak institutions with strong ones. The assumption is that when there is rationalisation, there will be savings on staff.

Ian Bunting: A merger between Fort Hare, Unitra, and Rhodes is on the table. It would not be Rhodes taking over the others, but a new university, so the Rhodes brand name would go. It is not just the strong taking over the weak, but administering institutions in a decentralised way.

Peter Vale: The key is clearly the question of funding, where is the new funding formula, how will it spin out, will it be bums on benches and throughput rates?

Ian Bunting: The first draft of funding formula is being discussed in the Department of Education. The Minister is being quite silent on this document. Once the political signals come, then the department can go into the promised national plan, getting the frameworks set up. There is no point in publishing the funding formula without a plan. If you publish a funding framework hanging free and you tweak certain parts, institutions will be changed drastically. There will be no new money, we will be lucky to hang on to the subsidies we have. The system is inefficient and there is a lot of corruption. The current mechanism is based on student numbers but the numbers are going down. The Department of Education is trying to persuade the National Treasury to keep funding at 1998/99 levels and allowing savings to be put into re-engineering institutions. This is highly political. Half of the money for higher education institutions comes from subsidies, half from private sources, for example, fees.

The basic argument is that teaching costs should be uniform across the system and related costs should be the same. Government money for research should go into a fund. At the moment research money goes to the place where research is done. Most of the research money goes to universities and most of it based on research outputs. The rest is blind.

Mervyn Bennun: The first thing that struck me is the comment about mergers. How can one administer institutions separated by 600km. At Exeter university the distance was ¾ of a mile between it and another university it was linked to. Instead of merging, how about universities developing a structure for moderating each other instead of being at each other’s throats?

No degree-awarding institution can be a university where no research is done. Research is to teaching as sin is to confession. No university lecturer should be prohibited from doing research. What about external examiners?

Larry Pokpas: There is a positive spin on the CHE document – it sets minimum performance characteristics to determine policy outcomes. For example, a library, staff with certain qualifications, these can be useful to assess quality. But in any institution which meets those criteria, the intent must be to improve performance. How can the characteristics be linked to outcomes? With regard to the Higher Education Amendment Bill, you just gave a good reason why the Minister should regulate, but there are reasons why he should not do so if universities were running themselves properly. If you fund universities from January, not from March, many institutions would not have to go into overdraft.

Ian Bunting: At least one university has two thirds of its subsidy in overdraft. A letter from the Minister to the bank does not say ‘I guarantee the overdraft’, it says we will pay a certain amount of subsidy per year.

Richard Rosenthal: These are letters of comfort. Banks can sue on them depending on how they are written and who signs them. Universities are distinct juristic persons, they can go bust.

Rob Davies: An outcome like this would be unacceptable

Ian Bunting: Student numbers are declining and it is very difficult to collect fees. Approximately 30 per cent of a university’s money comes from fees, and they need money to retrench staff if this becomes necessary.

Peter Vale: There are good initiatives from government on quality control – examinations, how many external moderators there are, and a review of departments. South African universities have had knives at each other’s throats. Although we have a common platform for co-operation in the Western Cape, we are fighting with each other.

Mervyn Bennun: Without external examiners I have no faith in the examinations.

Shirley Walters: We are getting into an organisational discussion rather than the economic development of the country. What I miss here is an analysis of the role of the higher education system on economic development. If we are saying we are trying to compete in the world, what does this mean? What does it mean to build a knowledge economy and what skills are available? This document is a negative, parochial discussion. How do we get out of the parochialism? There is no regional discussion saying, for example, in the Western Cape, these are the regional imperatives, this is what the five institutions have to deliver. Instead we get into an organisational development crisis management discussion. How can we get beyond this kind of managerial problem? How can we discuss the problem and how it will impact on the society?

Ian Bunting: The Minister set the tone. Saleem Badat felt in the December paper that we should go back, reframe, revisit but Asmal said we have a problem with bankruptcies, there must be consensus, the report must be short, don’t target historically disadvantaged institutions. The Minister pulled this down to the organisational level.

Shirley Walters: Can we think strategically about how to work with the document?

Larry Pokpas: If you ignore the examples at the back, the document does contain arguments about the system rather than the details of specific institutions. We should start with the White Paper and revisit it.

Norman Levy: Is there anything which will address the dual system of education (historically disadvantaged and historically advantaged institutions) rather than perpetuate it?

Ian Bunting: We are sitting in the Department of Education with a political problem. We can’t say ‘look you’re failing, close down’. Asmal said ‘do not target HDIs’. But everyone is tainted by apartheid geography. What black kid would want to go to Alice rather than the city? All the places which are failing are in the rural areas. It is nice to go back into intellectual policy, but practical issues on the ground are critical.

Rob Turrell: What do you in UWC get out of it?

Peter Vale: We have got to focus on the things we think UWC should be doing, we are completely different to UCT. We have a very small amount of co-operation with UCT. Our experience with this tends to be very bitter. There were two or three projects to talk about public health but we were stabbed in the back. We were also stabbed in the back in a discussion about nursing. People are cynical about co-operation. Stellenbosch University says UCT is only interested in it because UCT can send its students there to be taught for free.

Richard Rosenthal: A degree of rationalisation, co-operation, merger, combination has to happen. The issue is how, and should it be a marriage based on love or by arrangement. This report gives a lot of comfort to the historically white universities, a lot less comfort to the historically black ones. Historically white universities are wanting to take over. This is a critical dilemma – it appears to keep the status quo intact. There is a space for the UWCs to map out some kind of trajectory, but what about, for example, the University of Venda?

Ian Bunting: The political advisors in the department are against the classification because it does nothing more than perpetuate the apartheid divide, but the political path seemed to the task team to be mergers. Resolving the problems by merging is politically OK. But the Western Cape misses out on having to do mergers. (The CHE is dominated by people from the Western Cape.)

Larry Pokpas: We have concentrated too much on the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape. Instead of the kind of conservatism that we have in the Western Cape, what about institutions which have changed their profiles, for example, the University of Pretoria. The document safeguards institutions which poach students.

Ian Bunting: Ending up with 20 new institutions with new identities would be great, but it is difficult to achieve.

Peter Vale: It is difficult to make policy in these circumstances. There is an absence of clear direction. There are so many multiple complex discourses, complex communities and politics. Running institutions is difficult, and this is not helped by the Ministry of Education.

Ian Bunting: The key thing will be the ANC’s response to this document. Joe Muller’s Curriculum 2005 team feels the damage of criticism of its work. Asmal will not give any signal until he is clear about what the broad church of the ANC thinks. A workshop is being held this week. We are in limbo until we receive a political signal, for example ‘you cannot touch Fort Hare’ or ‘these institutions are not sacrosanct’.