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Degrees of disarray — South African universities becoming lost in grapples with governance crises

Jonathan Jansen, Distinguished Professor of Education at Stellenbosch University

When university executives act as governors and make decisions that legally reside with council, there will be instability. All of this can be avoided when we appoint competent, ethical, and wise leaders to govern and indeed manage our universities.

There can be little question that South African higher education faces its most serious governance crisis since the dawn of democracy in the mid-1990s. The crisis this time is not student protests for free higher education or union demands for insourcing.

It is a challenge of governance in which the university council is at the heart of the problem. The council, recall, is the highest decision-making body of a university responsible for governance. It establishes the policy infrastructure of a university, oversees the financial well-being of the institution, and appoints the vice-chancellor. If a council fails in one or more of its core duties, the university collapses.

The cases of governance collapse are by now well-rehearsed in the public square thanks to a vigilant media. At the University of Cape Town (UCT) we witnessed a crisis which was located in the offices of the chair and deputy chair of council who failed to act, says a report on governance, on multiple complaints centred on the university executive.

And at Unisa, the council failed to impose a stable and healthy governance regime on core university functions such as technology infrastructure, to the extent that educational services to almost 400,000 students collapsed; a recent assessor’s report found “a council that is reckless in the execution of its fiduciary duties” and recommended that the governing authority be disbanded.

Rogue councils and council leaders represent a story that has been well-documented over the past 30 years. In my recent book Corrupted: a study of chronic dysfunction in South African universities, I detailed some of the most egregious cases of governance collapse in higher education.

Politicisation issues

Where do these crises start? Principally, because we choose weak leaders. Recent events offer ample evidence that where leaders fail, they are found to lack the leadership temperament, the management capacity, and the ethical consciousness to act in the best interests of the university. How does this happen? Because we often choose leaders for all the wrong reasons (race, gender, party affiliation, etc) rather than also their ability to lead large and complex organisations such as the modern university.

Why do these crises persist? Mainly, because we hesitate to take the right decisions about errant leaders quickly. Think of the years of indecisiveness at Unisa before there was government intervention and, even then, the delays in making decisions based on investigatory reports.

Not only that, but the politicians also then begin to take the side of the weak leaders through public statements that run counter to the governance decisions of a good council or the recommendations of an independent assessor. Under such conditions, universities are doomed to remain in interminable cycles of crises.

How do we end these crises? Our research suggests that the single most important factor in building a strong and sustainable governance culture is the depth and quality of the leadership appointed. Council members must be appointed for their expertise in particular areas of governance such as finance, law, auditing and human resources and not because of their union or political interests and affiliations.

Council members must be thoroughly vetted by council leadership before they are appointed. Senate leadership must ensure that council upholds their rights and responsibilities with respect to the academic project; too often senates sleep through successive crises of governance.

Student leadership must ensure that they are not used as political fodder by outside parties or as conduits for the redirection of tender opportunities in favour of corrupt forces on and off campus.

Put differently, when every stakeholder stays in their proverbial lanes with respect to their authority as spelt out in the Higher Education Act and the statute of the university, then crises are often managed successfully.

Alternatively, this means that where council leadership decides to unduly interfere in and even manage a university’s day-to-day functions, expect crises to result. When university executives act as governors and make decisions that legally reside with council there will be instability. All of this can be avoided when we appoint competent, ethical, and wise leaders to govern and indeed manage our universities.

There are good examples of universities that never seem to buckle under the pressure of severe crises such as the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) or Stellenbosch University. There are reasons for this: their councils are dominated by high-level expertise and their chairs of councils are wise and competent leaders.

Why is it so important to pay attention to matters of governance? South Africa only has 26 public universities. The top six or seven of them are world leaders in research and development. About six of them are in states of perpetual crisis. And recent events have shown that those crises are no longer limited to the rural, under-resourced institutions.

Unless we pay urgent attention to governance leadership, we face the real risk of losing our best universities as in the case of state-owned enterprises. 

This article was published in Inyathelo's 2023 Annual Report and The Daily Maverick



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