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Proposed policy sets out universities’ research requirements

Images (l-r): Adrian Frith [CC BY-SA 3.0], Dfmalan [CC BY 3.0], Samuella99, all via Wikimedia Commons

But many details are still missing

Proposed legislation by South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training could downgrade universities found wanting in research.

The draft policy for the recognition of South African higher education institutional types was published in the Government Gazette on 8 August. The policy lists the criteria to which institutions must adhere in order to be recognised as: higher education colleges; university colleges; and universities (including universities of technology).

Blade Nzimande, the higher education minister, said in an 11 August statement that the goal of the policy is for “greater horizontal and vertical mobility by learners in the higher education system”. The public can comment on the policy until 8 September.

The policy mandates universities to have extensive research capability in a broad range of disciplines.

“A university must undertake research and produce knowledge contributing to the national development needs and international scholarship, and demonstrate a culture of sustained scholarship evidenced in peer reviewed academic publications which inform teaching and learning in all its academic fields,” the policy states.

The policy does not stipulate which metrics it will use to measure universities’ research activity and output, or the thresholds universities will need to comply with in order to keep their status.

The draft document does have specific requirements about the types of research conducted and qualifications offered by universities.

At least 60 per cent of research activities and outputs at comprehensive universities and universities of technology must be in applied research. A third of qualifications offered at these institutions must be in technology-based programmes.

To qualify as a university an institution must offer at least half of its degree programmes up to doctoral level and have demonstrable community engagement.

Universities who do not meet the new criteria will be reviewed and may be designated as a different institutional type, be incorporated into another higher education institution, or forced to close. The minister may also change an institution’s status if asked by the council to do so.

The policy will class universities in three categories: “Depending on a range of operations across undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research, emphasis on its activities will determine whether a university is teaching-led, comprehensive, or research-led.”

While South Africa’s research intensive universities such as the universities of Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Pretoria and Stellenbosch will likely be unaffected by the proposed policy, some smaller universities, particularly historically disadvantaged universities, might be in danger.

Historically disadvantaged universities lag behind former white universities both in funding and research outputs despite a dedicated government programme to boost research at these institutions. There have been calls for more funding to “level the playing field” between South African universities. Historically black universities also stagger under debt, while a number have been placed under administration in recent years because of governance failures.

Once accepted, the policy will be reviewed every five years.