The Place and Role of Universities of Technology in the Higher Education Sector by Ms Judy Backhouse
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The Place and Role of Universities of Technology in the Higher Education Sector by Ms Judy Backhouse

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Ms Judy Backhouse’s (Director: Monitoring and Advice, Council on Higher Education (CHE)) presentation at the SATN Annual Conference 2009. ...

Ms Judy Backhouse’s (Director: Monitoring and Advice, Council on Higher Education (CHE)) presentation at the SATN Annual Conference 2009.

Theme: “Technological innovation at Universities in South Africa: towards industrial and socio-economic development”

16 - 17 July 2009
Cape Peninsula University of Technology
Bellville Campus.

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    The Place and Role of Universities of Technology in the Higher Education Sector by Ms Judy Backhouse The Place and Role of Universities of Technology in the Higher Education Sector by Ms Judy Backhouse Document Transcript

    • The Place and Role of Universities of Technology in the Higher Education Sector Presentation at the South African Technology Network (SATN) Second Annual Conference, 16-17 July 2009, Cape Town, South Africa. Judy Backhouse I‟d like to thank the organisers of this conference for the opportunity to be here today. I‟d also like to pass on apologies from the CEO of the CHE, Dr Cheryl de la Rey, who would have liked to be here, but was unable to be. As you have heard, I am responsible for Monitoring and Advice in the Council on Higher Education. This is a little-known part of the CHE‟s work. If you work in higher education institutions you are far more likely to have encountered the Higher Education Quality Committee, the HEQC, who are responsible for the quality assurance activities of the CHE. So while I am going to primarily address the matter of the place and role of Universities of Technology in the higher education sector, I am also going to take this opportunity to intersperse what I say with information about my directorate and the work that we do. For those guests who are not from South Africa, the Council on Higher Education is a statutory body that advises on and quality assures the higher education system. The work of the Monitoring and Advice directorate is twofold: 1) to advise the minister on matters pertaining to the sector and 2) to promote debate about and understanding of the higher education sector. In order to fulfil these two functions, the directorate is involved in monitoring and research activities in order to ensure that what we do is properly informed. At an internal meeting of the CHE recently we were brainstorming what an ideal higher education system might look like. We came up with the analogy of an ecological system 1
    • in which there are a number of organisms (or for our purposes, organisations) each with their own niche. In an ecological system one has a number of organisms all concerned with surviving and reproducing, and yet they may look different, behave differently and employ different strategies to achieve their goals. Organisms adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves or find areas in which they can operate successfully because of their particular abilities. Analogously, we felt that the higher education system might be thought of as an ecology with a number of organisations, all concerned with learning and research, but having different characteristics, different modes of operating and employing different strategies towards their goals What becomes valuable in such a system is diversity and adaptability. Diversity has several benefits. It lessens direct competition between organisations, allowing them to find niches, meeting particular needs in particular ways. Diversity means that students entering higher education have more choice in the kinds of programmes they enrol for – both in terms of the content of the programme and the ways in which they are expected to learn. Diversity means that a range of research is undertaken that includes the full spectrum from blue sky to applied research. Diversity would allow room for experimentation. Organisations would adapt themselves where necessary to take advantage of niche opportunities and learn by copying and adapting the strategies of others in the system. This was our vision of a lively, and innovative higher education system. So, framing the higher education system in this way, let‟s consider the role and place of the Universities of Technology. I am going to begin by addressing the role, that is what they do, and then I will go on to discuss their place, how they fit into the higher education sector. 2
    • The role of the Universities of Technology There are three aspects of what the Universities of Technology do in the higher education system that I think are mandated. Firstly, like all universities, they are expected to be knowledge organisations, to deliver learning programmes and to do research. Secondly, the name University of Technology carries an implicit mandate to focus on technology. What is open to debate is what contitutes technology. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as “(the study and knowledge of) the practical, especially industrial, use of scientific discoveries”. But that definition may be too narrow and I think it is up to you, the members of the SATN, to debate what definition is most appropriate. Thirdly, as public institutions, I would expect the work of the Universities of Technology to be in the public interest. However the public interest is interpreted, this must at least include addressing pressing national problems such as poverty. Beyond that, in the spirit of academic freedom, it is up to the sub-sector, the individual institution and to the individual academic to decide their role, to decide what they want to understand by technology and the public interest and how best they and their institution can fulfil that role. From what I have seen of the performance indicators project (which will be discussed by the next speaker) the Universities of Technology are well on their way to defining their role. The description of Universities of Technology as (and I quote from the foreword of the final report of that project) “career oriented educational institutions which concentrate on problem-solving in their research and engagement with the community” is certainly not at odds with the three mandated roles that I have described. I also expect that within the members of the SATN, there will be diversity. Institutions will make different choices about what learning programmes to offer and what research areas to develop. Some institutions might need to adapt and I would expect them to watch other institutions for approaches to teaching and innovative research programmes that they can copy and adapt to suit their own goals. But as organisations within the 3
    • ecology of higher education, it makes sense for the Universities of Technology to focus on their strengths. In her address to the first SATN conference last year, Dr De la Rey identified some of these strengths. She suggested, for example, that one of the things that Universities of Technology do better than other universities is to produce diplomates and graduates that are „work-ready‟ and thus highly valued by industry. She highlighted the demand for technicians and technologists which the Universities of Technology are well positioned to meet. She also suggested that the strong tradition of workplace learning in the sector might result in relationships with partners in industry, business and the public sector, that can be leveraged for innovative research and community engagement. One of the things that I have been busy with in the past few months is compiling a report on the State of Higher Education, which is a review of developments in the past five years. This has meant that I have spent a lot of time examining data about the higher education system. One of the things that the data shows is that Universities of Technology appear to be doing something right as far as learning goes. The number of graduates from the Universities of Technology has been increasing steadily over the past five years, despite falling enrolments. In this respect they are doing better than the other universities. This achievement is all the more notable because the universities of technology attract what are perceived as the weaker students from the school system. If the Universities of Technology do indeed have any secrets about how to improve student learning, it will be very important to share them with the rest of the sector. Ongoing concern about how to improve learning is a focus, not just of every South African university and the CHE, but internationally too. That the Universities of Technology might be better at teaching does not surprise me. I was recently at an international Learning conference and I was struck by the gap between what education research is showing are good ways to learn and teach and what we 4
    • continue to practice in higher education. Again and again research backs the critical role of the good lecturer in student success, the need for learning programmes driven by what students already know, the need for hands-on learning rather than sitting in lecture halls and listening, and the need for varied forms of assessment. It might be that the greater historical focus on teaching and the more practical training that students encounter in a University of Technology provides better conditions for learning than that at other institutions. This could well be one of the strengths of the universities of technology. Another area in which the Universities of Technology might have an advantage is, as already suggested, in the established relationships that they have with employers in industry, business and the public sector. The CHE has been running a series of investigations into community engagement in higher education. In particular, we have been trying to understand what community engagement is, given that there are many different interpretations. What is becoming clear is that community engagement often includes elements of both learning and research. Many projects with community partners begin around a learning programme and develop into research projects, and vice versa. I think that this is an area in which universities of technology can develop innovative projects that result in more effective learning and innovative applications of technology that solve problems. What I do think is important is the ongoing development of the staff at universities. One of the papers at the conference I mentioned (at which, incidentally, the Universities of Technology were well represented) was given by a researcher from the Central University of Technology, Dr Vinger. He had done an evaluation of the transformational leadership capacity in the institution which showed positive results. That was very good news for me. Implementing the work of the higher education sector depends on the staff at institutions and ongoing staff development is a key part of the learning and adapting that I'm talking about. Staff development, needs to be both in developing better understandings of teaching and learning and in developing research skills. 5
    • The place of the Universities of Technology Now I want to turn to the question of the place of Universities of Technology in the higher education sector. As I was preparing this presentation I found myself turning the term over in my mind. The word place seems to suggests phrases like “know your place” and “put in your place” that refer to a place in a hierarchy. But I think it is important that we think of the higher education sector in terms other than hierarchies. Another of the tasks that I am busy with at the moment is constructing a framework for the ongoing monitoring of higher education. In putting together this framework I have often been confronted with the expectation that what the monitoring framework will do is rank universities. People say things to me like: “Oh, are you going to produce league tables?” But this is not how I see monitoring and I do not think that ranking universities is at all useful. For a student trying to select an institution, it may not be of any use to them that a particular institution has had more Nobel prize winners than the next, unless of course they are planning a research career in a similar field. Far more students will be looking for an institution that offers them a good learning experience. Indeed the problem with rankings is that they are too one-dimensional. It seems obvious to me that an institution might excel in one area and not in another and that rankings would obscure these subtleties. In the ecology of higher education, it is difficult to rank organisations in a linear fashion. All occupy places that contribute to the sector, but in different ways. I see that this matter is to be addressed by Mr Hoving and I look forward to hearing his views. From a monitoring perspective, the questions in my mind are: “Is the system (as a whole) meeting the national needs?” (And I interpret needs very broadly, to include those of employers, students and social development) and “How is the system as a whole faring?” In order to answer this I am less interested in what is happening at the level of the individual institution. For example in the forthcoming State of Higher Education Report, 6
    • I report aggregate information for the Universities of Technology, the Comprehensive universities and the Universities. Of course I am also interested in answering the question “If not, where are the problems?” and for this I may need to drill down into the data and look at an individual institution. There are some principles that I will be using in constructing this monitoring framework. Firstly the intention is to look at a wide range of indicators and qualitative research. Secondly I will draw whenever possible on existing data and research so as to avoid burdening institutions with further reporting. In these two respects the performance indicators project (which we are about to hear more of) will be of great assistance to me by providing a set of indicators that I can draw on. Thirdly I believe that we have to allow, that whatever data and research is collected, there will always be room for multiple interpretations. So I do not consider it my role to provide any definitive interpretation of the results of our monitoring, but to encourage debate about possible interpretations. The question of differentiation in the South African higher education sector has produced some discomfort and probably because it was introduced in the form of a hierarchical distinction between institutions. But going back to the model of an ecology of higher education, I think it is more appropriate to think of a diversified system in which institutions have different focus areas that match their different strengths. Such a model is more dynamic and allows for innovation and change. What we at the CHE are noticing is increasing self-differentiation in the sector. This process started with the Universities of Technology who have gotten together through the SATN and this conference and begun to define a role for themselves. There is also a group of rural universities who are working with the CHE on defining their own unique identity and value proposition and I am aware of conversations between some of the comprehensive universities (and indeed of their conversations with the universities of technology). The same process is also evident among the private higher education institutions. Institutions are seeking out those similar to themselves, creating shared 7
    • identities that enhance the identities of the individual institutions and learning from each other. They are also becoming more assertive. Which is exactly what should be happening in a healthy ecology of higher education. If we are to develop and support the envisaged ecology of higher education, we are going to need steering mechanisms that are more nuanced than the current planning, funding and quality assurance mechanisms. And indeed, within the CHE, and in conversations with other bodies, this is being discussed. The HEQC, is coming to the end of the first round of institutional audits and this provides an opportunity to re-examine the criteria for quality that are applied to institutions. The accreditation process is also being reviewed. Of course the cynics will say that there is still an implied hierarchy with the research institutions at the top. But I think that depends on how you value knowledge. There are traditional hierarchies of knowledge that place more abstract, theoretical knowledge above practical applied knowledge, but I think that, given the society we live in, there is a very strong case for practical knowledge to be valued above other kinds of knowledge. All that is required is a shift in mind-set. I would prefer that there be no hierarchy, but rather a recognition that different kinds of knowledge all have a place. So I think that the question of place is less important. It is appropriate that there should be ongoing debates about the value of different kinds of knowledge. And it is these kinds of debates that I am mandated to support. Which brings me to another function of my Directorate and that is producing publications. The CHE produces two series, the Higher Education Monitor that reports on the results of our research and monitoring and Kagisano which reports on debates in the sector. The next edition of Kagisano is earmarked for the Universities of Technology and this debate about place. I know that there are people in this audience who have been preparing contributions and I am eagerly awaiting the copy. (Incidentally our publications are freely available from our web site or our resource centre.) 8
    • In conclusion… The role of the Universities of Technology in the higher education sector is the same as that of any university. It is to develop students through learning programmes and generate knowledge through research. Universities of Technology do this within the realm of knowledge about technology and with the goal of addressing problems for the public good. The place of the Universities of Technology in the Higher Education Sector is really up to you, the members of the South African Technology Network to decide. If you continue to imagine and implement strong career-focused learning programmes, that deal with the challenges of students poorly prepared by the school system, make use of innovative approaches to teaching, and produce graduates who are highly sought after, the Universities of Technology will indeed be the leaders in good teaching. If you are able to develop strong research programmes that produce research that solves problems and contributes to economic and social development, you could well become the leaders in that kind of research. I think that this sub-sector is one of the most exciting parts of the higher education sector at present. The shift to being Universities of Technology, whatever the reasons and circumstances that brought it about, became an opportunity to re-define your institutions and your contribution to the country. I believe that the Universities of Technology have made impressive progress in pro-actively defining their own identity and role, and I look forward to monitoring where you go. Thank you. 9