Policy Report: Promoting Good Governance in South African Higher Education



The Council on Higher Education Governance Task Team had three objectives:



  • To describe and analyse the present state of governance in public higher education institutions in South Africa;

  • To evaluate the concept of "co-operative governance";

  • To make recommendations on how to improve efficiency, effectiveness and accountability in higher education governance.




In order to provide focus, the Task Team's scope was limited to the role of Councils, Senates and Institutional Forums, the relationship between these three structures, and the relationship between the public higher education institutions and the state. The public higher education sector was taken as comprising the 21 universities and 15 technikons that were operating in South Africa in 2001 and early 2002 (although the number of institutions will be reduced by mergers that have already been announced, and by further institutional combinations that will be announced in the future).



In meeting its brief, the Task Team commissioned a detailed study of current policy, comparative international practice, and governance in a sample of higher education institutions. The results of this study are available in a full research report, and underpin the Task Team's conclusions and recommendations.



This report sets out the Task Team's conclusions and recommendations.



Chapter 2 summarises trends in South African higher education governance since 1994, in the context of international developments. The Task Team concludes that there has been a steady convergence between local imperatives in governance and international trends, with the result that many of the issues that face South African higher education are shared with other parts of the world.



Given its brief, the Task Team concentrates in particular on the concept of co-operative governance which, it notes, was an important part of the South African "settlement", enabling the basis of reconstruction of the deeply fractured system of education inherited from the apartheid years.



The Task Team identifies bicameral governance as the basis of South Africa's higher education system - the shared accountability for governance by lay members of Councils who act as trustees in the public interest, and the academic staff of universities and technikons, represented through Senates. While Council has authority over an institution, it must work in partnership with Senate in the academic area - a relationship that is clearly specified in current legislation. This bicameral arrangement defines the role of the Vice-Chancellor, who is accountable to both Council and Senate.



The Task Team notes that the Institutional Forum is established as a statutory, standing advisory committee. There is, however, confusion about the role of the Institutional Forum, which some still regard as a continuation of the Broad Transformation Forums of the early 1990s.



Finally, the Task Team reviews governance at the general level, noting that South Africa has a system of "state steering", in which the Minister of Education has a responsibility both to direct the higher education system in the national interest, and to respect the autonomy of individual institutions. The Task Team notes that recent amendments to the legislation have considerably strengthened the Minister's authority to intervene in the affairs of individual institutions.



Chapter 3 turns to the results of the study of a set of 12 higher education institutions, commissioned by the Task Team in order to inform its recommendations. This work involved a detailed study of each institution's governance documentation as well as site visits, during which wide-ranging interviews were conducted.



In order to treat the empirical material objectively it was necessary to identify a set of benchmarks that define the required qualities of efficient and effective governance and a set of criteria that can be used to determine the extent to which an institution meets these governance requirements. Using benchmarks derived from current policy and legislation, particularly the 1997 White Paper, the Task Team identifies four notional types of governance at the institutional level: institutions that have self-referential governance systems and shallow levels of delegation; institutions that are inward-looking in governance and which have developed systems of delegation; institutions that have participative governance systems that are well-tuned to the public interest, but limited delegation of responsibility; and those that are both attuned to the public interest and which have strong systems of delegated authority.



In turn, these notional types of governance have been matched with the case studies, allowing the Task Team to evaluate the extent to which the governance of individual institutions conforms to policy for public higher education as a whole. One cluster of institutions can be described as "contested", and either vulnerable to crisis, or already in crisis. A second group is "management-focused" and these institutions tend to be self-referential; while well-managed, they tend to be out of touch with the broader imperatives of public policy. In contrast, "democratic" institutions have broad participation of stakeholders in governance, but at the price of shallow systems of delegation and cumbersome management processes. "Democratic, well-managed institutions" combine the strengths of participatory governance with effective management systems.



The Task Team notes that, whatever the style of institutional governance, its effectiveness rests ultimately on the availability and ability of individuals to participate in governance. Consequently, the Task Team recommends that institutions give particular attention to building individual's capacity to participate in governance structures.



Chapter 4 considers the structures of governance that are specified in the legislation - Senate, Council and the Institutional Forum, and investigates how effective these are.



The Task Team notes that Senates, while critical to the bicameral system of governance, tend to be reactive and slow to take the lead in advancing the academic needs of the sector. The Task Team is concerned that this is undermining the critical balance in higher education governance, and recommends that institutions review the composition and functioning of their Senates.



In the case of Councils, the Task Team notes the critical role of trusteeship, and recommends that attention be given to developing a better understanding of what fiduciary responsibility entails. The Task Team examines the question of whether Council members should be remunerated, and argues that there is a case for devising a system to acknowledge the economic value of the time that lay council members give to the institution in their role as trustees. The Task Team makes specific recommendations for the basis of such remuneration and its regulation.



Given the central importance of fiduciary responsibility for the governance of higher education, the Task Team is particularly concerned that an unacceptably high proportion of Councils are either in a condition of crisis which has gridlocked procedures, or exhibit symptoms that indicate that crises could develop. In seeking ways to redress this situation, the Task Team finds that a number of conditions contribute notably to successful Councils: strong identification with the institution, a moderately-sized membership, clear and effective delegation of responsibilities without interference in the management responsibilities of the Executive, and strong Audit and Executive Committees of Council. The Task Team makes a number of recommendations that, it believes, will enable critical improvements in the quality of governance at the Council level.



As already noted, the role of the Institutional Forum is widely misunderstood. The study commissioned by the Task Team indicates that few Institutional Forums are functioning effectively, and there is little enthusiasm for their work. However, the Task Team believes that the Institutional Forum can, and should, play a key role in higher education governance. When taken in conjunction with the requirement that members of Council exercise their fiduciary responsibilities in the interests of the institution, rather than in furtherance of the objectives of the constituencies from which they are drawn, the Institutional Forum can be the place where student bodies, staff associations, management groups and academic bodies meet as stakeholder groups or as mandated organisations in order to develop policy options for Council to consider. The Task Team makes a number of recommendations that will strengthen Institutional Forums and help them to fulfil this role.



Chapter 5 returns to the relationship between the higher education sector as a whole and the state, represented by the Minister of Education. The Task Team is of the view that there is a need to renew the general sense of consensus regarding the principles of higher education governance, given that much has changed since the work of the National Commission on Higher Education in the mid-1990s. In particular, the concept of "co-operative governance" has lost much of its value as the agenda for social justice through education has been complicated by more market-related goals, changing state policies and new players in the education field, particularly private education providers.



In contributing to this process of reconceptualisation, the Task Team proposes the concept of "conditional autonomy" - a balance between the right and responsibility of each institution to determine its own policies, and the obligation of the state to steer the higher education system in the national interest.



The Task Team believes that there would be considerable benefit in a continuing debate about the vision and principles that determine policy in public higher education in South Africa.



Finally, the Task Team considers the case for a Code of Governance that will help in translating the principles of good governance into everyday practice, and recommends that attention be given to developing such a Code.



Chapter 6 brings together the Task Team's recommendations in summary form, and according to the type of action required.