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Fast-forward for project to support ‘agents of HE reform’ in South Africa

April 20, 2023

Original Article:

“Higher education in South Africa is not in a good space right now, but the sector has to take responsibility for itself. We can’t wait on the government. We need to move from complaining to reforming,” Dr Sershen Naidoo, a coordinator of the Higher Education Reform Experts – South Africa (HERESA) project, said during a gathering in Cape Town.

“This project is developing agents of reform within higher education. They need to be equipped with the necessary tools, and through their involvement in this process, they become strategy experts, which then become weapons of change.

“Strategy development and implementation is an area of higher education that has not been adequately addressed, and HERESA is filling that gap,” Naidoo said.

His comments mirrored a key feature of the HERESA project, which is focused on much-needed change at South African universities. The project reached a significant milestone recently with two gatherings in Cape Town.

From 22 to 24 March, Higher Education Reform Experts – South Africa (HERESA) held a leadership workshop for top university managers to discuss pressing challenges in the sector and identify potential solutions, drawing on national and international case studies.

This was followed by a benchmarking workshop from 27 to 29 March for senior staff members from six South African universities who have been developing teaching and learning strategies for their institutions as part of the project. They were supported by delegates from three European universities and the South African Qualifications Authority, or SAQA, which are partners in the project.


HERESA was formed in 2020 by the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA) and OBREAL Global, a development body promoting South-South-North collaboration in higher education and research. It received a grant from the Erasmus+ capacity-building project for higher education to build a network similar to Higher Education Reform Experts (HERE), established in 2007 to promote the modernisation of higher education in countries surrounding the European Union (EU).

The project takes inspiration from the original HERE model yet adapts the approach to the South African context. Implemented as a pilot project over three years in the member universities of THENSA, it aims to strengthen and revitalise their teaching and learning strategies, hoping that the impact will spread sector-wide.

In South Africa, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), Central University of Technology (CUT), Durban University of Technology (DUT), Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), the University of Venda (UNIVEN) and Walter Sisulu University (WSU) are members. EU partner institutions include Ireland’s Munster Technological University, Finland’s Tampere University of Applied Sciences, and Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology.

Complex challenges

The leadership workshop brought together university leaders from different contexts to develop solutions to the complex challenges facing higher education nationally and internationally. Speakers included CPUT’s Professor Chris Nhlapo and DUT’s Professor Keolebogile Motaung.

A stated aim of the gathering was to “shift the focus from rigid and reactive to agile and proactive leadership”.

In her keynote address, UNIVEN’s Professor Nosisi Feza highlighted the devastating impact of poverty in South Africa, pointing out that 45.5% of households received social grants in 2019, as opposed to 30.8% in 2003, and that 61% of applicants for the social relief of distress (SRD) grant were between 20 and 34 years old.

She said there are “extreme expectations from stakeholders that universities should solve societal problems”, yet approximately 70% of SRD applicants have matriculated or hold a higher qualification. This leads many graduates struggling to find employment to question the relevance of higher education institutions.

Teaching and learning strategies

Curriculum reform to make what is taught at universities more relevant came under the spotlight during the benchmarking workshop earlier this week.

There were workstreams on entrepreneurship, competency-based teaching and learning, work-integrated learning (WIL), and teaching for the fourth industrial revolution.

Professor Thobeka Ncanywa, an economist from WSU, described herself as an “entrepreneurship activist”. She attended the workshop to refine a teaching and learning strategy that would see entrepreneurship infused into university programmes so that graduates could create their own jobs.

Dr Zenzile Khetsha, an agriculture lecturer at CUT with “a passion for teaching”, wants universities to focus on the competencies that students need for the workplace. “It will be good for the country if we deliver graduates able to deal with our socioeconomic challenges,” he said.

Professor Lalini Reddy of CPUT said work-integrated learning was already mandatory for all programmes offered by her institution.

Dr Shumani Leonard Tshikota of UNIVEN said he was looking for a “digital strategy” that would make both his own work in teacher training and the teaching practice done by student teachers in the field easier.

Work together as a collective

Elizabeth Colucci of OBREAL Global explained how the project came about.

“Back in 2007, the EU first started funding what they called networks of higher education reform experts in their own region. These were strategic individuals at various universities. They had a centralised platform for training, and they would then carry that training back to their countries to influence reforms.

“In 2019, colleagues in THENSA looked at that project and approached us and said they wanted to do something similar in South Africa. So, we partnered and were successful with an application to Erasmus+.

“We think this is an interesting model. Doing it through THENSA means boosting universities of technology, which don’t always have a strong voice in the sector, so this is good for them as institutions. And it is also good for the individuals nominated by their universities to receive training, mentorship and capacity-building on key reform topics.”

Around 50 individuals from six THENSA member institutions are participating in the project. During an earlier phase of the initiative, they went on study visits to partner universities in Ireland, Finland and Sweden. And now, experts from those institutions came to South Africa to continue the skills transfer.

The project kicked off in 2020 and will end in its current form in November 2023 but will live on beyond that date.

Said Naidoo: “As an entity, HERESA will continue to exist. The communities of practice we are building will carry on. That’s one of the best things to come out of this initiative – all the offshoot projects. There’s already one on entrepreneurship, one on digitalisation, and WILSA – that’s Work-Integrated Learning South Africa, which will oversee WIL policy and WIL education in the country.

“That is how to bring about reform in a sector. By working together as a collective.”

TUT’s Dr Mumthaz Banoobhai echoed the sentiment that change was sorely needed in higher education in South Africa.

“We are so focused on the old ways of doing things, expecting students to do a three-year degree, while their needs have changed. My participation in this project has given me access to national platforms looking at better articulating formal and non-formal qualifications, accommodating micro-credentialing, MOOCs (massive open online courses), and so on.

“Nearly 30 years after the end of apartheid, too many people are still excluded from higher education in its various guises. That is the reform we need – to make access a reality, with the success that needs to accompany it – in the real world, not just academic achievement.”


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