UNISA quality audit highlights erosion of senate authority

The University of South Africa (UNISA) must resolve the apparent ambiguity around the roles and accountability of its senate and council in the governance and management oversight of its quality enhancement systems and must review the role of its Academic and Student Affairs Committee of Council (ASACoc) to ensure that council does not usurp the role of the senate.

These are some of the recommendations of a quality audit of UNISA by the Council on Higher Education (CHE), which plays an advisory role to Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande.

UNISA is the country’s largest university system by enrolment and operates largely as a distance higher education institution. Its student enrolments grew from 133,500 in 2001 to 343,800 in 2019. The report indicates it is committed to being Africa-focused and Africa-centred, with a Pan-Africanist agenda.

The final report of the audit, which took place last year in April, was recently made public by the CHE which has a quality assurance mandate through its Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) and conducts quality audits that determine whether an institution’s quality assurance systems and policies are ensuring the effective provision of good quality higher education.

The mandate of the audits is to assess, among other functions, governance and strategic planning, as well as the design and implementation of the institutional quality management systems that support core academic functions.

The publication of the findings of the UNISA audit coincided with a struggle between the institution’s council and Nzimande who wanted to place the institution under administration. It follows a damning report by an independent assessor, Professor Themba Mosia, which found evidence of financial and other maladministration at the university.

On 31 August, a war of words erupted between one of the university’s staff unions and the institution’s top management, which met before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education. The union alleged that there was corruption and bullying at the university.

The audit report indicates that it is common cause that the senate in any public university in South Africa decides academic questions.

“These include but are not limited to curricula, syllabuses, and whether a student qualifies. Senate is accountable to council but only in the sense that council must be satisfied that senate is exercising its responsibilities. Council’s role in this is to hold senate to account for its role. It is never council’s role to second-guess senate’s decisions on academic matters”, the report notes.

Failure to observe separation of roles

The report continues: “It was thus with some surprise that the panel found provisions in the UNISA Institutional Statute for the existence and terms of reference of a Council Committee (ASACoC) and in examples of the work of ASACoC that, on the face of it, place important academic responsibilities of senate into the hands of council. In so doing, this provision in the Statute fails to observe the important separation of roles between council and senate.”

The report asserts that the role of ASACoC in approving new programmes and qualifications on behalf of council “is a matter of serious concern to the audit panel since it means that senate’s role in the quality management system – and its views on academic matters – [is] considered as advisory by council”. This appears to be a serious erosion of the authority of senate as the primary custodian of academic matters at the university.

The panel’s concern was deepened by the fact that full professors are not automatically members of senate and, following an amendment to the statute, are represented as just one of the constituencies at senate – by having one elected professor from each academic department serve as a member of senate. The norm is that full professors are automatically members of senate and by being elected representatives, their voices are diminished.

“UNISA should give serious attention to the fullness of the academic voice at senate and the appropriateness of organisational arrangements to give senate the proper authority over matters of academic quality,” the report notes.

In South Africa, university councils comprise representatives from the university, government and industry, while most of its members are external. This is the highest decision-making body of a university. Senate, meanwhile, comprises senior professors, the vice-chancellor, deputy vice-chancellors and chief financial officer, non-academics and student representatives, and is accountable to the council for regulating all teaching, learning, research and academic functions of a university.

The audit report further notes that operational reporting lines on quality matters to senate appear duplicated and it is not clear where responsibility lies.

‘Troubled relationship’

Furthermore, the working relationship between council as the governance authority and the vice-chancellor as the executive authority, is best expressed through mutual trust and respect for each other’s functions. However, “the levels of detailed council oversight on the functions of the vice-chancellor’s office gives a sense of a troubled relationship between council and the vice-chancellor”, the report states.

Although UNISA defines itself as an open university, it has not genuinely operated as one as it is not more flexible about its admission requirements and registration times than traditional contact universities, the report notes.

The institution “is not on the path to greater flexibility in student admissions and has not been able to negotiate with the Department of Higher Education and Training to admit all who meet the minimum admission requirements”, according to the report.

The report points out that UNISA “struggles with a seemingly annual failure of governance or management or both, leading to failures to start the [academic] year at the intended time and to resolve student issues related to registration in good time”. This had a knock-on effect on the academic calendar and was visible because of management’s failure to resolve industrial or student disputes in good time, the report notes.

In the media, UNISA tends to get a bad rap over its perennial registration issues as students claim there is poor communication from the institution.

On this note, the report indicates that “student representatives expressed a view that academic support structures for students are largely dysfunctional and that the relationship between the university leadership and student representatives is weak. Both staff and students acknowledge that the most important negative characteristic of this relationship is the poor level of communication between students and the institution”.

Registrations are accepted at a very late stage, even well after semesters start and it is feared that this leads to poor chances of success for significant numbers of students. This is part of a range of challenges that contributes to poor student success and qualification rates, as is generally acknowledged by the institution itself, according to the audit report.

The audit report recommends that UNISA should improve the integration of student governance structures – at all academic and institutional levels – in its quality management processes.

This should include structural arrangements for reporting to students on quality responses to formal feedback received from students. This process should include implementation and effective communication of a complaints procedure that is easily accessible to students.

Review of policies

The report also noted there was evidence that policies are not subjected to regular review and recommends that UNISA works to ensure there is a documented procedure for the development, approval and review of all policies, and that a comprehensive consultation process is included to ensure proper alignment of the related policies with the quality management framework.

The HEQC uses a review methodology consisting of an institutional self-evaluation report (SER) and an external peer review which verifies, triangulates and validates the institution’s self-evaluation.

The external peer review consists of a document analysis of the SER and institutional portfolio of evidence, as well as a site visit at which interviews are conducted with constituencies and physical campuses are visited. The audit committee then produces a final report.

The audit report was not all bad. It notes that UNISA achieved “the near-impossible” in managing to continue successful teaching and learning in 2020/2022 despite COVID-19, and during which time the institution successfully catapulted itself overnight from a distance learning institution into a distance e-learning university.

Some innovative practices are emerging such as the use of a massive open online courses before students commence their studies at undergraduate level, “which are directed at student preparedness for study and combine the use of new technologies for learning in a targeted way that bears positively on student success”.

In response to queries concerning the report’s findings, a UNISA spokesperson said the university had responded directly to the CHE and had also submitted an improvement plan to address the areas raised in the report.

“We now await the response of the CHE to our improvement plan and, as a result, we hold the strong view that it would not be ideal to engage with any other party on the issues in the improvement plan whilst we are still engaging the CHE, including engagement with and through the media.

“We however have no doubt that a robust quality assurance system is in place to ensure that our university’s teaching and learning adheres to the highest standards. As you know, the outcome of the CHE audit also confirmed that the university is functional in 10 out of 16 standards, with three commendations. This is also an important outcome that we should not lose sight of,” said the spokesperson.