Why co-operative governance must be a higher education priority

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Leadership development: University of Pretoria vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Rey says the fundamental
Leadership development: University of Pretoria vice-chancellor Cheryl de la Rey says the fundamental

Governance is the process of governing; it is not about controlling, manipulating or fiddling the facts and events

King IV came out in the middle of world turmoil, serial meddling with the fate of SA and the #FeesMustFall transformation protests at universities.

A pause is required for us to focus again on governance. Like Google, the term has been overused to the point that we seldom stop to think what it really means.

Governance is the process of governing; it is not about controlling, manipulating or fiddling the facts and events. Governance includes balancing the powers of the members of an organisation and holding them accountable while dealing with the legitimate needs, interests and expectations of stakeholders in the best interest of the organisation.

Governance requires critical thinking and engagement, which is what universities were established to produce.

There are enough top-quality people in higher education to maintain the excellence for which many South African universities are renowned. But everyone in higher education and beyond needs to get back to the basics of governance and the role of governance structures.

Critical to this in university structures is that all stakeholders – from the senate to the students — need to commit to a process of leadership development and training. This is the only way they can begin to have constructive engagement on transformation issues.


The names of university governing bodies differ from those in companies and other organisations, but the dynamics are strikingly similar.

The Higher Education Act says councils are the highest decision-making bodies of public institutions in the field. They are responsible for good order and governance; and the institutions’ mission statement, financial policy, performance, quality and reputation.

The senate of a public higher education institution is accountable to the council for academic and research functions. This balances power, in part through the stipulation that 60% of the council must not be staff or students. This is intended to ensure the independence of the council and that checks and balances are in place to avoid conflicts of interest or to help resolve them.

The act says the fact that councils have overall accountability does not mean that they can override senates on academic issues in the way that a committee has authority over its subcommittees.

Thus "academic functions" — including the study activities, instruction and examination of students and researchers — specified in an institutional statute, can only be amended by a council with the  senate’s concurrence.

Vice-chancellors are appointed by councils, and as the act states, are accountable to councils for managing the institution. It can be equated to the relationship between a company’s CEO and its board.

However, vice-chancellors are also chairmen and chairwomen of senates, and need to uphold their interests. A vice-chancellor’s role is highly complex in situations where the senate does not concur with the council in academic matters, or where the senate defends an issue of academic freedom against the council or without its support.

So, how does transformation ever get out of the starting blocks? How does co-operative governance ever get a chance to flex its influence?

The third, equally important, set of governance structures are the institutional fora, which advise councils on solutions to critical issues. Through the interrelationship of these three structures, the broad principles of co-operative governance are expressed.

Essential to this process are the voices of the students, conveyed through their participation in the institutional fora and through students’ representative councils.

The institutional fora should comprised a range of people representing sectors of the university including academic and nonacademic staff. They are central to co-operative governance, as they are the most stakeholder-representative and inclusive bodies in the university.

Yet, fora are too often seen as ineffective and having little or no power to rule on or overrule decisions or affect policies. Too often, they are dominated by senior management.

So, how does transformation ever get out of the starting blocks? How does co-operative governance ever get a chance to flex its influence?

It is pointless to create structures as valuable as the institutional fora, and then throw people in at the deep end and watch them drown. A substantive investment should be made in leadership development and training to ensure that people responsible for carrying out their duties are empowered to do so. It is also important to communicate to the entire university what the different governance roles are among the senate, council and institutional fora.


A lack of clarity could prove destructive if the institutional fora are perceived as weak and parallel processes are established that undermine the governance process. It is incumbent on universities to return governance to the fora and reinstitute the respect and power they need to function and advance transformation.

These insidious dynamics and process issues are not confined to universities; every company has their counterparts and a lot can be learned from higher education transformation summits. In a briefing paper for the 2015 summit, Prof Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria said: "While volumes have been written on governance, leadership and management; at the operational level, the boundaries between these differing roles are often blurred either intentionally or unintentionally, and this can lead to serious problems.

"The fundamental principle that should inform the exercise of governance, leadership and management is acting in the public interest, in other words, in the interests of all the people of SA and in the interests of the broad development agenda.

"It should be self-evident too that for councils to govern in the broad public interest, the composition of councils should reflect the diversity of the South African public. While this is necessary, it is not sufficient."

She added that, even with a good legislative and regulatory framework, governance often went awry.

One problem area is partisanship where council members are intentionally voted into positions to represent specific stakeholder groups such as political groups, and to protect or advance sectorial or factional interests. This dynamic plays itself out vividly in SA’s public and private sector and all over the world; they are complex issues and they are not new.

Governance task teams in the Council on Higher Education have been concerned about this for years. In 2002, a task team convened by former UCT Graduate School of Business director Prof Nick Segal, undertook an investigation with several objectives including establishing whether, how effectively and with what consequences co-operative governance had been implemented at public higher education institutions; and to make recommendations on improving efficiency, effectiveness and accountability in governance.

It all hinges on leadership development and training, which is why business schools are engaging in many different organisational contexts.

We are broadening executive education and leadership development to include any organisational context where leadership and management development is required, including schools.

This needs to be extended to all areas of governance in higher education institutions.

• Skae is director of Rhodes Business School.

Source: https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2017-10-04-why-co-operative-governance-must-be-a-higher-education-priority/

Source:  Business Live

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