The private higher education sector has been waiting for almost two decades for a fair playing field alongside public universities, and the time has come for the amendments to the Higher Education Act – widely welcomed when announced last year – to be implemented, an expert says.
"The Act now makes it explicitly possible for a private higher education institution that meets the stipulated standards to take its rightful place beside public universities, in line with how private universities are positioned internationally," says Dr Felicity Coughlan, Director of The Independent Institute of Education, SA's largest private higher education provider.
"Deeply hidden in the old version of The Act was the possibility for private institutions to become private universities if they met the criteria set by the Department. Yet the Department did not set those criteria and thus kept private institutions from exercising their right to be called Universities if they met the criteria."
Coughlan notes that the new version of The Act defined three future institutional types for all Higher Education institutions: Universities, University Colleges and Higher Education Colleges.
"The problem is that it all stopped there, potentially because implementation requires drafting and applying criteria that have the potential consequence for some public Universities of stripping them of University status. It has been suggested that the Department would need to start with the public Universities and this is where the negotiation and engagement must happen first. It does not take much imagination to understand why this is not a course of action likely to be followed soon.
"And therefore, the process has not started and does not appear to be on anyone's agenda anytime soon."
Coughlan says that the growth in private higher education in the last decade is evidence that the general public has realised the distinction between public and private higher education does not lie in the naming rules (due to regulations, private higher education institutions may not call themselves private universities, even though they are subject to the same oversight and regulations).
"The broader public now knows and understands that South Africa has a progressive and unitary quality assurance system in which the degrees and other qualifications of public and private institutions are subject to the same accreditation and registration process, and that students therefore can choose where they study based on personal needs and preferences rather than on having to select an institutional type on the basis of whether or not it gets subsidy from the state," she says.
"Progressive professions such as engineering, accountancy, teaching, nursing and psychology have also taken this unitary quality assurance system and the right of students to choose where to study on board. The professional associations connected to these professions apply the same rules for further accreditation of institutions and registration of professionals to the public and private institutions, and graduates from the private institutions are equally able to write the exams to become registered professionals alongside the graduates of public institutions.
Coughlan says that is the correct approach in a democratic society where quality and mastery of a body of knowledge and values achieved through what you studied rather than technocratic exclusionary rules about where you studied determine if you are fit and proper to be member of a profession.
"The current hiatus serves some interests and simply put, the failure to implement the 2017 changes in the Act gives ammunition for those still trying to keep the private sector at bay. In an ideal situation, the work would begin, and the process would unfold. Private institutions are even arguing that perhaps the Department should be expedient and begin the process with private institutions. If the criteria are developed and implemented for private institutions first, then those public institutions which potentially no longer meet the criteria for the category they wish to be recognised as, would have several years to attend to the gaps."
As the private sector has been waiting for almost two decades for a fair playing field, beginning the process with them would not only redress that inequity but it would also avoid the political hot potato of having to change the designation of any public universities in the short term.
"This would be a just and fair outcome," says Coughlan.
"it is difficult not to be concerned that the amendments to the Act were not made to resolve the impasse of the past 15 years but rather just to buy more time. Time will tell, but in the interim the public is learning to appreciate the range of choices open to young people who want to study, and that tide will in any case not be stemmed."