Differentiation: New Elite Ranking by Stealth?

​​* This is an edited extract of the address the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Prof Ihron Rensburg, delivered at the Africa Higher Education Summit in Dakar, Senegal in March 2015

There is every reason to examine the state of post-school institutional differentiation, and to explore pragmatic ways forward so that university leaders and policy makers can strengthen, deliberately and decisively, universities response to the call for far more effective and influential learning and teaching, research and public scholarship.

Conversations on the matter of institutional differentiation is of course often filled with much controversy. Consider the contemporary contextual facts: the heightening currency of university rankings, and rankings becoming self-fulfilling prophecies, in which the elite public and often private institutions simply receive affirmation of their elite status. Consider also the angst and haste that cause states to seek quick solutions to their nation-states falling behind in the global race for skills, innovation and economic development, that inevitably see them invest more scarce public resources in elite institutions. Often though, narrow egotistical ambitions, whether at nation-state or institutional level, influence debates about differentiation.

In these circumstances, often, differentiation is nothing other than a ruse used by states for allocating scarce or marginal additional public resources to elite institutions. Consider for example the considerable top-down efforts and resources invested by the Russian state to enable at least five universities there to gain entry into the world’s Top 100 universities by 2020. Consider similar state efforts elsewhere, including China and also bottom-up efforts by individual universities to influence state decisions in this direction, and we have all of the ingredients for national public spats and fights over scarce public resources, with elite institutions pitched against their “weaker” national peers.

Wither differentiation? Vertical or Horizontal?

My own recent experience as chairman of South Africa’s University Vice Chancellors Association’s (known as Higher Education South Africa) Differentiation Committee is instructive. Our efforts to reach a pragmatic way forward was focused on arguing ourselves out of a “vertical differentiation mode of thinking.” In this mode of thinking, universities are ranked according to their elite status that, sadly, prefaces research performance in the international community over learning and teaching. The argument here is that elite status is determined by how an institution is valued or ranked in the global system. Accordingly scarce resources or marginal additional resources should be directed at these institutions since, presumably, this would result in the nation-state achieving global elite status. Alternatively, the argument is that these elite institutions could achieve far more for the nation-state and the planet in their areas of competence should these scare or marginal additional resources be invested in such areas of competence.

This is of course a troubling mode of thinking. Often it is precisely the “non-elite”, foundation or bedrock institutions that undertake the bulk of the critical undergraduate learning and teaching, that is so critical in the instance of developing nations, while the elite institutions focus on (post) graduate learning and teaching. Indeed, elite institutions often argue that this is the correct role differentiation.

In the context of my recent role of stewarding conversations on institutional differentiation in South Africa, the focus was on the far more productive “horizontal differentiation mode of thinking,” in which instance, we conceive of a national (or continental or global) system as a coordinated system of institutions who have a diverse range of missions and mandates that are equally valued and that serve different students in different ways.

In this mode of thinking, a far more difficult equilibrium to negotiate and reach, and which nonetheless is a far more productive a path, a technologically-focused institution is equally valued as a post-school college, as an undergraduate-focused college or university, and as a research-intensive institution. This is precisely so since each of these roles performed is vitally important to national (and continental and global) development, and to the nurturing of inclusive and caring vocations, professions and societies. Thus, the role and contribution of the IT technician is valued equally to that of the professional lawyer, to that of the toiling college or university teaching-focused academic, and to that of the highly cited scientific scholar.

Differentiation Categories: Signally Elite Status Or Simply Descriptive?

In the circumstance of a horizontal differentiation mode of thinking, differentiation becomes a categorisation rather than a ranking, such as differentiation by structure as by size, funding (public vs. private) and mission (undergraduate teaching vs. comprehensive). Or by type of programme focus such as teaching intensive, research intensive, technological/design focused or comprehensive. Or by specialisation such as whether discipline-focused (e.g. pre-service education, medicine, science and technology, arts and humanities, etc.) or comprehensive. Or by how services are provided such as whether residential, distance or on-line. Or by the composition of the students served such as whether gender-focused (male or female college or university), bi-lingual or denominational.

Examining post-school institutional differentiation, it is argued that this case derives from various attendant public virtues or goods which in my view can only be the result of arriving at a collective level at a horizontal differentiation mode of thinking. Some of these public virtues or goods often put forward include that differentiation often results in or precipitates a higher quality of research, and of learning and teaching; that we achieve far more student choice that is accompanied by easier post-school inter-institutional transfer and mobility; that we achieve greater public accountability; that we are able to build a far more financially sustainable system; and, that the result is a far more globally competitive national system.

Then, What Are The Necessary Requirements For Differentiation?

For a horizontal differentiation mode of thinking to succeed, institutionalising a critical set of system drivers is absolutely essential, otherwise the system will simply default to a vertical differentiation mode of thinking in which the system collapses into a competition for scarce resources with elite institutions elevated to the top.

The first and foremost is the equal valuation of the two primary functions of post-school institutions, viz., learning and teaching – a code word for undergraduate teaching – and research functions. This is particularly critical contemporarily where rankings preface research, and elite institutions and nation-states inevitably focus scarce resources on (post)graduate training and the production of valued research outputs. A second essential condition for success is to link differentiation to funding. Equal valuation of learning and teaching, and research, must be reflected in the allocation of scarce public resources. A third and linked essential condition, is that all institutions within the post-school system must provide equally well, an ever-increasing quality of the teaching and learning, and research functions. Otherwise, students will deselect poor quality providers, higher quality providers will refuse to partner poor providers, and the entire system collapses, once more defaulting to a ranked vertical differentiated system. A fourth essential condition of the success is the formal building of programme-articulated partnerships between colleges, undergraduate-focused, technology-focused and comprehensive institutions. This will signal to students and the nation-state the formal roles of all post-school institution types, and enable students to flow from one institution to another.

Then, How Can We Make Differentiation Work And Be Successful?

It is essential for institutions to know their niches areas of strength, in learning and teaching, and in research, and for these to be demonstrated and validated rather than imagined. Such a review, as troubling at an institution level as it may turn out to be, is an essential step which also opens up the way for the institution to explore and plan how in future it will evolve these strengths, and how it would resource such ambitions.

The importance of knowing yourself, within your context, so that you know your compelling value to students, communities and nations. This methodological approach is important so that you are able to know and understand your competing and collaborating providers, and their strengths and unique value propositions. In this manner, within our regions, nations, continents and the world, we are able, together with our peers – competing and collaborating – to understand and offer our unique and shared values.

In order for horizontal differentiation to work, states, acting on behalf of the public, have an important role to play. For it is when as institutions we are able to define our paths, with our peers, and understand our public accountability, then we will be able to move forward. Specifically, it will be important for institutions to agree annual and medium-term performance plans on matters such as the expected enrollment mix (priority teaching and research programmes and areas for future growth and development. Such plans will also include agreements on graduate and research outputs.

A Final Note for Aspiring World-Class Universities

Prior to considering the question of boosting global recognition, aspiring world class universities are well advised to first achieve institutional dynamism, focus and purpose, an established institutional rhythm, reputable universal traditions of scholarship, a critical mass of outstanding academics and magnetising academic teaching and research programmes, as well as a well-recognised and appealing public image. Aspiring world class institutions can then turn their attention to building global recognition by establishing themselves as critical contributors to global scholarship and conversation. They can do so through the considerable efforts of dynamic and charismatic institutional leaders, and those of their outstanding scholars networking their flagship learning and teaching programmes within value-adding global networks.​

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