The Universities South Africa Board of Directors endorses the 2024 focus areas of its strategy groups 

10-11-23 USAf 0 comment

Funding Strategy Group (FSG)

At the ordinary meeting of Universities South Africa’s Board of Directors, the Chairperson of the Funding Strategy Group (FSG), Professor Bismark Tyobeka, who is also the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the North-West University, advised the Board that the FSG wished to continue into 2024 with the priorities for 2023. He said the impending cuts to state subsidies to the sector in 2024 and the uncertainties surrounding the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) rendered the long-term financial sustainability of universities a priority concern. However, some of the FSG priorities, as carried over from 2023, could be lumped together under one heading.

Professor Bismark Tyobeka, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the North-West University, took over the Chairpersonship of USAf’s Funding Strategy Group with effect from August 2023, following the resignation of Professor Tawana Kupe.

Thus, the priorities presented to the Board from 2024 were as follows: 

a. Review of the long-term financial sustainability of the higher education sector considering

income streams and efficiencies. This priority would follow up on the “Study on the

long-term financial sustainability of the higher education sector considering income

streams and efficiencies. The FSG was mandated to lead the sector in proactively addressing misconceptions surrounding university reserves and third-stream income. This would entail communicating more effectively to the public and stakeholders about the purpose of these funds. Sub-themes under the long-term financial sustainability of higher education would be:  

  1. Sustainable financial support for students – incorporating the NSFAS student funding model, funding for the missing middle and funding for post-graduate students; and thus, carry sub-themes such as:
  2. Funding for student accommodation and other university infrastructure, and
  3. Inequalities in the system – this would take into consideration the Sibusiso Bhengu programme, with a nuance on the historically disadvantaged institutions, and the unresolved issues around the BBBEE scorecard.  

b. Shared services platform for the broader university sector. The FSG maintained that universities must consider some kind of shared services, noting the differential capacities in the system to procure specific services. Professor Tyobeka said the PURCO model remained an example to explore in keeping this discourse alive.  

The Board approved these priorities. 

New addition to the FSG membership

Noting that the membership of the FSG fell short of the prescribed number by one, the Chairperson recommended appointing Professor Stan du Plessis (left), currently Stellenbosch University’s Chief Operating Officer and Professor of Economics, as a new addition to the membership. Professor Du Plessis was said to carry a wealth of experience, having previously served as the President of the Economic Society of South Africa and as a member of the advisory “Harvard group” of economists to the South African government.

The Harvard Group refers to a panel of international economists that were assembled by South Africa’s National Treasury through Harvard University’s Centre for International Development as part of the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative (ASGI-SA) between 2004 and 2014.

The core team comprised 10 experts supported by 20 contributors, of whom Professor Du Plessis was one. This panel spent two years analysing the South African economy and its growth prospects and composed 20 papers spanning all aspects of South Africa’s economic policy to accelerate growth, halve poverty and eradicate unemployment.  Professor Du Plessis’s contributions included two papers that he co-wrote with two other scholars in 2007. 

Other endorsements concerning the FSG

The Board endorsed this appointment, as it did the USAf Resource Mobilisation Strategy 2024 to 26 aimed at improving USAf’s sustainability and strengthening its support to universities through its projects and programmes. The strategy is also aimed to enable the organisation to realise its objectives laid out in the Strategic Framework 2020 to 2026, and in the Three-Year Implementation Plan of 2024 to 2026.

In the context of the Open Access project, which advocates for the transformation of scholarly publishing from the current subscription model to new open and unrestricted access to scholarly outputs, the USAf Board was requested to endorse two letters addressed to two publishing houses, EBSCO Information Services, and Taylor & Francis, respectively.  The letters, authored by the FSG Chairperson, were in support of the South African National Library and Information Consortium (SANLiC), which has been leading South Africa’s negotiations with publishing houses on transforming their current publishing practices. 

These letters highlight the consequences to South Africa’s knowledge system, of inevitable increases in subscription fees in respect of these publishers for the next three years, stemming from the Rand / Dollar exchange rate and the normal inflation-related price escalations. 

The Board endorsed the two letters.  

The Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG)

Similarly, the RISG, under the chairpersonship of Professor Thoko Mayekiso, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Mpumalanga, would retain the 2023 priorities, slightly tweaked as follows: 

a) Innovation – Of concern is how knowledge generated from research can improve people’s quality of life and well-being, and scoping universities’ progress concerning innovation and social entrepreneurship. 

b) Research and innovation impact – Alongside the research impact framework of the National Research Foundation, the RISG, drawing from a recommendation of the 2023 Research and Innovation Dialogue, will explore developing a nationally co-ordinated system for impact assessment, and the development of a national database of universities’ case studies of demonstrated societal impact. 

c) Cooperation and collaboration on internationalisation — Drawing from findings of a study just completed, that sought to determine the state of internationalisation activities at South African universities, the British Council, in collaboration with IEASA, will explore funding possibilities in aid of universities towards implementing the Policy Framework on Internationalisation of Higher Education in South Africa. The RISG awaits the final report of the study by the end of 2023, following which it will monitor the environment for further developments. 

d) Engaged science and scholarship — The RISG aims to encourage new knowledge and knowledge integration for the mutual benefit of the non-academic public, community partners, and universities through active engagement and the integration of theory and practice. To that end, the RISG will explore facilitating a symposium with universities and other role-players to identify and agree on specific initiatives.

The Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG)

Under the leadership of Professor Andrew Crouch (left), Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Sol Plaatje University, the TLSG would also retain its current priorities for 2024, considering that the work being done under each of the following priority areas continues into the coming year:

a) Transforming the curriculum for societal impact: Working in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education, the TLSG has commissioned a qualitative study to investigate how institutions are approaching curriculum transformation and to establish what learnings there are that can be shared across the sector. The lead researcher, from the University of Johannesburg, will mine data from Self Evaluation Reports submitted to the CHE by the 26 public universities from 2021-2023. This will be followed by interviews to deepen understanding on the state of curriculum transformation and the challenges encountered.  The study was set to commence in November, continuing into 2024.

b) Optimising technologies to improve the quality of learning and teaching and assessment Recognising the myriad of new teaching and learning approaches to digital education that have been developed since the pandemic, the Board approved the TLSG’s proposal in October 2022 to establish a Community of Practice (CoP) on Digital Education and Professional Development. During 2023, 17 institutions responded to a survey providing inputs on the structure of this CoP and its focus areas. Universities recommended that the CoP focus on sharing experiences and resources, reflecting on teaching and learning challenges and innovations; finding meaningful ways to collaborate; developing a set of standards for teaching and learning practitioners; establishing networks and international benchmarking. During October, the Terms of Reference of this CoP were being finalised with a view to commence operating in earnest in 2024. 

c) Promoting multilingual approaches to learning and teaching: Four senior language specialists are working together to develop a multilingual framework for learning and teaching. They have planned a benchmarking exercise to investigate the strategies, policies, and procedures that universities must have to support multilingualism. To that end, a project proposal was being developed for implementation in 2024.

The Board also heard that the terms of office of three members of the TLSG were eligible for extension by another two years. These were Professor Vivienne Lawack, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at the University of the Western Cape; Professor Nokuthula Sibiya, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning at the Durban University of Technology and 

Professor Laura Czerniewicz, Director: Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Cape Town.

The Board approved the continuing membership of Professor Lawack. The TLSG’s recommendation for Professor Czerniewicz’s continuity, and the replacement of Professor Sibiya will be tabled in the first meeting of the Board in the first quarter of 2024, considering that the latter was no longer available to serve as a member of this Group.  

The Transformation Strategy Group (TSG)

Professor Puleng LenkaBula (right), who chairs the TSG, and is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of South Africa, presented her Group’s priorities for 2024 as listed below. These also present continuity of the 2023 focus areas but with a new twist in some instances.   

a. The Engaged University: In 2024, the TSG will explore establishing a national project to theorise and build models of universities engaged in their local contexts — incorporating the Carnegie Elective Classification (CEC) project on community engagement (more is said on the CEC below). 

b.  Inequalities highlighted by CoViD-19 and accelerated uses of technologies: The TSG was reluctant to undertake a specific project in pursuit of this priority area in 2023, noting that USAf has implemented two projects, one of which considers technology as a means to enhance teaching and learning, under the TLSG. A second project considers the interface of 4IR and technology in the world of work, under the leadership of the WSG (see below). The TSG, nonetheless, incorporated this as a topic of discussion during the Transformation Dialogue 2023, under the sub-theme “Intersection of digital transformation and social justice.” Although the Group might only decide in 2024 whether to retain this as a focus area, or not, they have, for now, decided to hold on to it.  

c.  Campus safety with a focus on mental health and positively influencing higher education sector responses to gender-based violence: Noting the work that Higher Health has undertaken on these areas in the past year, the TSG is exploring ways to collaborate with Higher Health in taking this priority forward. This, as the DHET continues to consult with universities towards establishing Minimum Physical Security Standards Blueprint for Universities aimed at enhancing campus safety, to address the student violence related aspect of campus safety. For 2024, the TSG will incorporate the research study on different forms of violence on campuses – into this priority.

To give effect to The Engaged University project, the TSG requested Board approval to pilot in South Africa, the Carnegie Foundation’s elective Classification for Community Engagement. This is a tool that universities and colleges in the United States use to gain recognition for institutionalising community engagement. Subject to Board approval, the TSG is considering undertaking an environmental scan of community engagement in South Africa’s institutions as part of exploring the suitability of applying the tool in the South African environment. 

Accessible at a cost in US$, the tool can be piloted and redesigned to suit the context of the implementing country. However, the Carnegie Foundation said the cost was negotiable; it mentioned sponsorship possibilities and suggested that the tool could also be implemented in collaboration with other institutions in the region. 

World of Work Strategy Group (WSG)

This Group asked to explore its priority focus areas of 2024 in their first meeting in 2024, and to present them to the Board at a later stage. 

Leadership and Management Strategy Group (LMSG)

Based on the LMSG’s broad aim to advise and engage the USAf Board on the current context, challenges and opportunities in university governance, leadership, and management, and how to address these appropriately and effectively for the three-year period from 2023 to 2026, the Chairperson, Professor Nana Poku (left) informed the Board that this Group aims to focus on:

a. Governance, Leadership and Management: Surfacing and addressing the key challenges and opportunities in university governance, leadership, and management; and providing national platforms for engagement and evidence-based guidance and support in the form of concept papers in a consultative and inclusive manner.

b. Collaboration and National Interests: Emphasising collaboration within South Africa’s higher education sector in university governance, leadership, and management, by streamlining and synergising capacitation efforts rather than duplication.

c.  Global Engagement: By examining models and innovative thinking from international and regional good practice, higher education leaders in South Africa can broaden their horizons and engage with future-facing concepts. This goes beyond mere adaptation to current digital trends and delving into visionary planning for the next decade and beyond.

 d.  Ownership, Purpose, and Sustainability of HELM: The focus here is on the financial sustainability and expansion of HELM. Identifying opportunities within SADC universities and private institutions illustrates a strategic awareness of both domestic and regional potential. Planning for market growth while maintaining a strong position in the existing landscape is essential for the future of HELM. 

The Board approved both the LMSG Terms of Reference and the set priorities for 2024 to 2026.

As Professor Muthwa drew the Ordinary Meeting of the Board to a close, she thanked staff at the USAf Office and Secretariat for their support to the Board and extended her gratitude to her fellow board members for their support during her four-year tenure. 

She thus adjourned the ordinary meeting as it geared for the next leg, of the USAf Annual General Meeting. 

‘Mateboho Green is the Manager: Corporate Communications at Universities South Africa.