HE bogged down by unwieldy systems and interference

Preliminary findings of the Higher Education Leadership Programme in Africa – HELP – have revealed numerous weaknesses and impediments hindering the governance and leadership of African universities. Also highlighted were gender issues and state interference.

Now in its second year, the project of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, or CODESRIA, has so far commissioned 12 different research networks.

The groups are either nationally based, involving the interrogation of issues between public and private higher education institutions and between different facets of the public higher education system, or involve two or more countries.

The networks run across all of the countries included in the programme: Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

Findings varied from country to country, but there were commonalities reported: the legal frameworks for funding and financial governance in institutions were a general problem in all of them. There were views that governments retreated to escape pressure from institutions for funding, but created statutory bodies to maintain some administrative influence within universities.

In Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda, for instance, the government indirectly or directly participated in appointing university leaders and constituting organs such as university councils.

The downside to this was that while university leaders had been free to innovate and generate extra revenue, especially through expansion of enrolments, financial accountability and the quality of academic programmes had been neglected.

Councils and government interference

Most of the countries’ universities had seen a reduction in the number of people nominated to serve on governance organs like councils, and the number of stakeholders nominating members to serve.

Yet evidence from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania showed a desire to have councils that were lean, efficient and effective. Previously, more than 20 people, many with no experience in higher education governance, had been appointed to each of these bodies. New frameworks in the three countries have now capped the number of members at no more than 12.

Representation on the council should also be based on criteria including the following, argued the report: teaching and learning; research and innovation; outreach; gender mainstreaming; internationalisation; quality assurance; and student welfare; as well as representation from the legal sector and line ministries of education, finance and public service.

Government interference was widespread, said the report, and there was inconclusive data on the degree of new autonomy granted to universities through the composition of new governing councils.

One reason was that the final appointing authority for most council members still remained a government agency or even the president of the country – as in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. And in most cases, about half of those appointed fell within the category of government appointees or representatives.

Even when provision was made in the regulations for representation of other stakeholders, and even when these were from the private sector, most council members ended up being more an extension of government and status quo functionaries than people keen on driving fundamental reform in university governance.

However, some changes had been implemented that theoretically removed direct government control from the daily management of institutions.

Over the past two decades, most universities in the study had moved from the political governance model under which they had been established as national institutions at independence. University acts that created universities as national public institutions had been repealed and new charters awarded.

For instance, in Uganda the National Council for Higher Education had started a process to amend UOTIA – the Universities and Other Tertiary Institutions Act of 2001 – to have public universities apply for charters.

Where this process had not been accomplished, said the report, there was still a high degree of interference from the political establishment in how institutions were managed. New higher education commissions had been created to directly provide governance oversight – but they largely served as government statutory bodies.

University leadership

On the issue of day-to-day management, the report said new higher education governance frameworks had set new guidelines on how university leaders were appointed. Data indicated that most universities followed corporate trends in constituting leadership and management organs.

Appointment of executives like vice-chancellors and deputies was now done through competitive search processes approved by council, and statutes contained in the charters of different universities.

Chancellors who made the final appointments after the search processes were no longer heads of state.

In Kenya, although chancellors were not heads of state, the cabinet secretary in charge of education made final appointments. A positive development, said the report, was that the new university act clearly laid out the framework for how the offices must be constituted. But reforms were still incomplete.

Gender issues

Sexism and gender issues prevailed at nearly all of the institutions in the study.

In Nigeria, for example, there was continued male domination of governance boards such as councils, senates and academic boards. It is from these bodies and committees that vice-chancellors, deputy vice-chancellors, principal officers and heads of establishments emerge.

For instance, among the top officers at Nigeria’s Obafemi Awolowo University, the chancellor, pro-chancellor, vice-chancellor, deputy vice-chancellors and registrar were all men. The only women were the librarian and the acting bursar.

The same applied to senate; the provosts of the college of health sciences and the postgraduate college were men, and out of 13 deans of faculties, only two were women. Also, out of 222 professors in the university, only 15 were women.

However, there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. In Kenya, the fact that the country's constitution requires gender and special-group representation in key public appointments should gradually increase the number of women involved at various levels of higher education governance.

Students and politics

CODESRIA’s findings showed a number of flaws when it came to student governance, and what frameworks existed to govern student academics and welfare.

Preliminary analysis of data comparing trends in public and private institutions concluded that the more the privatisation, the less the engagement of students in governance issues.

Although there are statutes that legalise and regulate student governance bodies’ activities, they appear to have little influence over decisions taken by senate and management.

Research indicated a lack of genuine student representation in governing bodies, especially with the increased privatisation of public universities. Possible reasons were that governance reforms were partly a response to an era when student activism was seen as part of the problem affecting higher education institutions.

Interestingly, national politics and political parties appeared to wield tremendous influence over student self-governance structures, for instance unions, and processes. A high proportion of respondents affirmed that all of the 11 possible areas of influence analysed by the study were greatly affected by national politics and political parties.

Also, it appeared that the impediments to effective participation by students in governance differed from public to private universities.

In private institutions, for instance, challenges included that while charters might specifically state that students must be involved in governance, universities did not implement this in practice. Student leadership had no direct link to management structures: proxy representation was widespread; and apathy was a big problem. Also cited was fear of victimisation of student leaders who became too vocal.

In public universities, large student numbers made it impossible to represent everyone’s needs. Respondents said there was a tendency for student leaders to be compromised by management, while infiltration of leadership by national politics often led to the ‘balkanisation’ of the student body by creating parallel camps.