Governance models and leadership quality in universities

Governance models in African higher education have evolved over the decades, but their impact on university leadership appears not to have been highly significant. The key drivers of quality leadership are factors such as individual capacities, leadership training and state funding, according to new research.

Professor Joseph Oonyu, head of the school of education at Makerere University in Uganda, believes governance models are important but management of them is key. “There are things we need to look at beyond the models – who are these leaders, who should we have, what sort of training should they receive, and how should they be appointed?”

Oonyu has been conducting research into “Governance Models and the Quality of Leadership in African Universities” for the Higher Education Leadership Programme of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, or CODESRIA.

The three-year initiative, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, is reaching its conclusion and a HELP Dissemination and Policy Dialogue Workshop was held last November in Arusha, Tanzania, to present and debate the research produced.

The study

In his study, Oonyu defined governance in higher education as “the means by which universities are formally organised and managed”. Governance was key to ensuring that universities performed their role of producing high-level skills and generating knowledge.

Cuts to government funding of universities all over Africa created pressure to design alternative income sources and reduce dependence on public funding. “Sometimes the 1980s are regarded as a lost decade for African higher education because that was a time when funding became extremely low, and we are still feeling the effects”, he told the workshop.

There was also pressure from the 1990s to make university education more efficient and relevant to society and the economy, and now university education has become central to the knowledge policies of many governments.

The study sought to analyse different governance models pursued by African universities from 1960 – from when many countries achieved independence from colonial role – and how they had impacted on the quality of leadership at universities.

Transformational leadership theory underpinned the research, which used both qualitative and quantitative methods to look at African countries and three universities – particularly Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and also the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.

Information was gathered and interviews undertaken with different categories of managers – top, middle and lower – as well as council members, deans and student leaders.

The objectives were to identify and categorise governance models pursued by universities, look at their impact on the quality of leadership, explore challenges facing universities, examine strategies being employed by university leaders, and identify success stories and see if they could be replicated in other institutions.

Successful models

The study looked at effective governance in a range of countries, including Finland, and found successful governance models to have certain characteristics.

“They allow for flexible, committed, transparent, accountable and goal-oriented leadership,” said Oonyu. “Where there has been a lot of success, universities are working very closely with the state. Not that the state directs the universities, but it influences them a lot in terms of funding and linking to outcomes.

“What does the state need in terms of social capital and how does the university respond to this?” Adequate funding was used not to control university leaders but rather to steer institutions to respond to labour market and other requirements.”

Governance systems that are successful create effective partnerships and networks between the state, higher education institutions and the private sector to ensure effective education and training, and to stimulate research and innovation. They provide equity, quality and access.

Governance down the decades

From 1960 to 1980 in both Uganda and Tanzania the governance model was strong state control, with funding fully from the government. “In the 1960s, when African countries had just got independence, there was a lot of hope and the state was willing to put in money.” The university chancellor was the head of state, and the government appointed university leaders.

Things started unraveling in the 1970s, Oonyu told the workshop. In Uganda, Idi Amin created havoc, local and expatriate staff fled the country, and development partners also left. The global oil crisis in 1973 weakened economies and African states went to the World Bank.

“Underfunding plus World Bank recommendations plus structural adjustment programmes led to a spiral of changes including the beginning of private students.” Alongside state-funded students, universities increasingly admitted self-sponsored, fee-paying students to make up for declines in state funding.

During the 1980s a state-private partnership model of governance evolved. At Makerere there was full introduction of the private student stream, and expanding student numbers started to place strain on infrastructure. Today, Makerere has some 40,000 private students.

During the 1990s there was growing pressure to make universities more efficient, and to run them like businesses – the corporate model of governance took hold.

At Makerere, a collegiate system was introduced in 2011, in an effort to alleviate financial challenges by granting autonomy to colleges to find ways to make themselves financially sustainable. At Dar es Salaam, semi-autonomous agencies run revenue generating enterprises but 66% of funding is still from government against 29% from donors and less than 5% is university-generated.

In all the universities, the study found, senate and council play a central role in governance, alongside the vice-chancellor.


Oonyu identified numerous challenges facing African universities, including leadership problems arising from government under-funding for institutions that do not yet have full autonomy. While governments say universities are now free, there is still state interference.

So, for instance, at Makerere “any attempt to increase tuition fees is usually dampened by the state, which promises to make up for the shortfall. But of course that does not happen.” Not allowing autonomy was likely to continue adversely affecting governance of the institution.

There are challenges around managing a great diversity of courses while maintaining quality. Dar es Salaam has more than 270 programmes, said Oonyu, while Makarere has over 300. “You have to manage this diversity in a coherent way, based on a clear understanding of what you want in the end.”

Another challenge was around the trend towards decentralisation. University leaderships have “decentralised everything except money, which is still controlled from the centre. So it becomes difficult to get the benefits of decentralisation”.

There are also challenges around transforming universities in an era of knowledge economy – essentially, how to strengthen the knowledge contributions of African universities.

Finally, there are tensions that flow from the way leaders are selected. If a vice-chancellor is appointed by government, then allegiance can be primarily to government. If the vice-chancellor is elected, allegiance may be owed to groups of people and this can affect decisions.


The researchers concluded that governance models had evolved due to factors that were external and internal to universities, necessitating changes by leaders in order to cope with challenges such as growing student populations and under-funding by governments.

The impact of higher education governance models on the leadership of universities was “important but not very significant”. The key drivers of leadership quality included individual abilities, leadership training, the legal environment – some acts have contradictions – and low levels of government funding.

The challenges facing vice-chancellors included how to provide quality education for growing numbers of students within resource-constrained environments that generate dissatisfaction among students and staff, and how to make universities internationally competitive.

“The strategies that are primarily used to deal with these leadership challenges have to do with generation of income from business ventures, consultancies and fees from marketable courses.” Others included partnerships with development partners.


The research offers five primary recommendations. The first is to introduce policies to control the influx of fee-paying students to match the infrastructure available. “This may require lobbying and advocacy directed at politicians,” said Oonyu.

Second, “student loan schemes should be made more effective and available to all students. Governments should not sponsor students except through the scheme. More slots could be allocated to strategic courses”.

Third, laws that restrain the full potential of university leaders should be amended.

Fourth, universities could continue to use income generation activities as an avenue to increase funding, “but transparency and accountability are critical for creating a tension-free environment and reducing strikes. Governments should fully fund the wage bill in order to allow income generated through private students to be used for teaching and research.”

And finally, said Oonyu, university leadership could be more effective if vice-chancellors received leadership training. “The policy of electing or appointing leaders should be reviewed so that both the capacity and popularity of a leader are taken care of.”