Governance in South African Higher Education Research Report

Executive Summary

This project has three primary objectives: the description and analysis of the present state of governance in South African higher education; an analysis and re-examination of the concept of co-operative governance; and the development of proposals for the improvement of efficiency, effectiveness and accountability in higher education governance.

The first chapter of this report outlines the terms of reference of the project, and sets its goals within a review of international trends in higher education. It is noted that, over the past two decades, governments have adopted quasi-market approaches to their higher education sectors, introducing incentive and performance funding, requiring greater degrees of accountability, seeking cost savings from the public sector and encouraging the development of private education provision. In many cases, these developments have been in response to, or have accompanied, significant increases in participation in higher education. At the same time, though, this approach has attracted criticism, with the argument that it is incommensurate with the objectives of teaching, learning and research, and that reality is inconsistent with rational, top-down models of decision making and implementation. South African higher education is seen as moving from the uniqueness of its apartheid divisions and through a transformation agenda dominated by social justice, and is now showing increasing concordance with international trends.

The exploration of the "lived experience" of higher education has required an appropriate methodology: the identification of a representative set of 12 universities and technikons and the development of a set of benchmarks and criteria for their governance practices. These criteria are: the degree of representivity of governance structures; the depth of delegation; and the capacity for implementation, allowing an institution to turn policies into practice.

Chapter 2 reviews policy and legislation for higher education in South Africa over the last five years. This policy has centred on the concept of co-operative governance and a "state steering" model of state participation, in which institutions are granted appropriate levels of autonomy, and academic freedom is guaranteed. Accountability for governance is shared between lay members of Council, acting as trustees in the public interest, and professional academics, taking responsibility for teaching, learning and research through the Senate. In order to give effect to co-operative governance, South African legislation has added a third agency to this traditional model: the Institutional Forum, a statutory advisory committee of Council.

Chapter 3 moves to governance as it has been experienced on a day-by-day basis in the 12 institutions that make up the sample set for this study. Each institution has been rated against the criteria, resulting in four organisational types: "contested institutions" (self-referential governance and poorly developed systems of delegation); "management-focused institutions" (inwardly-focused systems of governance with well-developed capacity for administration and the delegation of authority); "democratic institutions" (broad governance participation and shallow systems of delegation); and "democratic, well-managed institutions".

Chapter 4 continues this detailed analysis with a study of the three major agencies of governance and their guiding philosophies: the Senate and the concept of academic freedom; the Council and the role of trusteeship; and the Institutional Forum, understood within the concept of co-operative governance.

Various interpretations of academic freedom and how it should operate are associated with differing roles that have been taken by Senates. An overall characteristic is that Senates are not functioning as envisaged in current policy, and most are marginalised in some way. Criteria for the performance of fiduciary roles by Councils are given by the 1997 White Paper. Well-functioning Councils have lay participants who identify strongly with their institution. Size is also important, as large Councils require a considerable amount of effort in maintaining cohesion. Effective Councils have developed systems of delegation, allowing the plenary Council to meet four or five times in each year to consider high-level policy and planning and to receive consolidated reports on key aspects of the institution's work and operations. Well-functioning Councils have effective and active Executive Committees and Audit Committees.

Converse attributes are evident in crisis-ridden institutions, where a lack of boundary definition and defined responsibilities result in continual debates and dissension about jurisdiction, with a consequently diminished attention to substantive issues. It is found that a large proportion of institutions are either locked in endemic crisis, or else face the risk of such crises.

The role of the Institutional Forum is closely bound up in the concept of co-operative governance. Those institutions that are in crisis have Institutional Forums that function more like earlier Broad Transformation Forms. In contrast, management-oriented institutions have followed the letter of the policy and legislation and have established Institutional Forums that function as advisory committees to Council, as specified in the White Paper. In these cases, a consequence often seems to be redundancy because of overlaps between Council and Institutional Forum membership.

Despite a generally negative view of the prospects for Institutional Forums, a broader interpretation of governance in practice suggests an important and continuing role. The combination of a fiduciary Council and an Institutional Forum where policy positions can be developed by mandated representatives offers value in governance through symmetry. If this potential in governance is to be realised there will need to be a strengthening of the relationship between the Institutional Forum and the Council.

Chapter 5 addresses three issues: the appropriate balance between state steering of largely autonomous institutions, and a regime in which the state exercises direct control in the public interest; the ways in which higher education institutions should report to the Department of Education; and a generic model for governance failure.

It is argued that there is every indication that direct state control of higher education is not effective in developing countries, and may be the cause of acute disadvantages. In developing economies such as South Africa's, policy is best understood as "conditional autonomy", put in practice through a web of interrelationships. Among other factors, these include the accountability of public higher education institutions, the status of external Council members and modes of institutional reporting. New proposals from the Department of Education, if adopted, will remove many existing ambiguities and will strengthen South Africa's system of conditional autonomy.

A key issue is whether or not external Council members should be remunerated. Analogies with the corporate sector are not commensurate with the fiduciary responsibilities of trustees, while traditional approaches may fail to win the participation necessary to empower the continuing transformation of higher education in South Africa. Remuneration gives definition to the relationship between the individual Council member and the source of the payment. Consequently, if external members of Council are to be remunerated, the state should set clear policy and criteria for this.

The generic model for governance failure suggests the possibility of early diagnosis of institutions in trouble, allowing the development of ameliorative measures. Conversely, well-governed institutions will share a range of characteristics: Councils that are representative of the public interest; Senates and Institutional Forums that well reflect the range of interests within the institution; clear and well-defined systems of delegated authorities and responsibilities; and adequate administrative capacity to ensure that principles can be translated into day-by-day practice. This detailed analysis of the state of governance in a third of South Africa's public higher education institutions underwrites the proposals for revised approaches to governance that conclude this report.