Steering the HE sector through turmoil and change

Professor Thandwa Mthembu, vice-chancellor and principal at Durban University of Technology, became the new chair of Universities South Africa (USAf), the representative body of all 26 public universities in South Africa, in January. Formerly the vice-chancellor of Central University of Technology, Mthembu moves into the position at a time when universities are under enormous pressure to implement the new fee-free higher education dispensation announced with scarce warning in December by South African President Jacob Zuma.

Mthembu spoke to University World News about the role of the organisation he will be leading for the next two years.

UWN: What is the role of USAf in the context of a rapidly changing higher education sector and dramatic developments around fee-free higher education in South Africa?

Mthembu: USAf wishes it had been consulted as the new policy was being developed. Yes, we appeared before the [Heher] ‘Fees Commission’ [set up two years ago to examine the feasibility of fee-free higher education and which subsequently found the country could not afford it]. But, subsequent to that there should have been an open and transparent policy development process to which we could have made contributions. But, unfortunately, the finalisation of the report was soon followed by an announcement of policy without the usual policy development processes we are used to.

Further, after the adoption of the policy one would normally expect a plan to then be produced that would detail how the policy would be implemented. Sadly, there was none of these. Under the circumstances, all we could do as public universities was to do our best to implement a rather unplanned but critical development.

UWN: What is the relationship between the government and universities, particularly in the light of the lack of consultation you mention above?

Mthembu: Relations between USAf and the Department of Higher Education and Training [DHET] have continued to be cordial. Once we all accepted that the policy development and planning processes had been opaque … we collaborated with DHET to implement ‘fee-free higher education’ as we moved along, which is quite uncomfortable as misunderstandings arise when implementation is done from one circular to another.

UWN: What are your priorities as new chair of USAf?

Mthembu: My priority is to steer USAf through its strategic plan, with all the revisions we may have to consider under the current circumstances – like how we shall implement this new fee-free education system with minimum deleterious consequences for the stability (operational, financial, political, etc), standards and quality of the system.

UWN: What are you most worried about in higher education in the country?

Mthembu: That the South African public higher education system could go the same route the public school system has gone – deteriorated almost beyond repair as a result of many policies that focus more on the growth of the system at the expense of infrastructure, funding and quality of entrants and other important aspects of the education process.

UWN: What do you think USAf can do to set things right?

Mthembu: We hope the new political leadership, which drives government policy, will provide all of us with an opportunity to collectively and collaboratively rethink what has been announced as policy so we can safeguard the many good aspects of it, together with those of the whole public university system in South Africa.

Any drastic change in a system without deeper policy development and advance planning is bound to result in many unintended consequences that could cripple it, no matter how well intended such change had been.