Strengthening leadership capacity will drive vital change in HE

The need to strengthen the capacity of leaders in higher education so that they can drive much-needed change in the sector was high on the agenda at a three-day workshop of Higher Education Reform Experts South Africa (HERESA) held in Johannesburg from 2-4 October.

More than 50 practitioners, policy-makers and leaders from higher education institutions and related bodies in Southern Africa and Europe attended the meeting, some in person, others online. This included participants from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Mauritius, France, Ireland, Italy, Finland and Sweden.

Representative bodies in higher education, such as Universities South Africa, the Southern African Regional Universities Association, the Association of Technical Universities and Polytechnics in Africa, and the Association of African Universities, also had delegates at the meeting.

This article is published in partnership with the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA) to focus on the Higher Education Reform Experts South Africa (HERESA), a European-Union-funded project including THENSA members. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Other attendees included representatives of South Africa’s Department of Higher Education and Training, Council on Higher Education, and the Education, Training and Development Practices Sector Education and Training Authority.

Participants were briefed on the findings of an institutional needs analysis, which revealed that a set of interventions to improve leadership through capacitating leaders was required.

Leadership inadequacies

“What emerged, is that we have very high levels of leadership inadequacies. People may have published hundreds of papers, but they are suddenly propelled into high leadership positions without adequate preparation or support. They might be appointed the head of department, without having the necessary skills – for instance, about organisational development,” HERESA Coordinator Dr Sershen Naidoo told attendees.

The meeting also received feedback from a study on the state of leadership and other aspects at universities in South Africa, which involved surveys, interviews and focus group discussions.

It looked at leadership training, mentorship and coaching for all employees, from junior staff to executive management. The study found that the levels and combinations of leadership training offerings were highly variable across institutions and that the quality of training was difficult to establish.

‘Feeding the full’

“What also came out was that many institutions were developing leadership initiatives, but only targeting high-level leaders, quite deliberately.

“The minutes of a meeting might indicate that staff members across the board were seeking leadership development opportunities, and then, the very next month, there would be a leadership retreat for top management somewhere. So, it’s not just a case of preaching to the converted, but of feeding the full. That’s what’s happening,” Naidoo said.

Professor Nosisi Feza, the deputy vice-chancellor for research and postgraduate studies at the University of Venda (UNIVEN), South Africa, shared her perspective: “Sometimes it’s like, ‘I am a black girl who has never led before, and now I have to lead. So, I will grab the opportunity, whether you like it or not.’ But then, ‘What skills did I attain? Who has trained me? Somehow, somewhere, I train myself.’

“Because no one cares . . . ‘They want me to be competent. If I’m not, they run to the newspapers.’ “So, we need to enhance academic leadership,” she said.

HERESA’s work

The workshop was used to disseminate findings from the HERESA project, a three-year pilot due to wrap up in November 2023, and gather input on the way forward.

HERESA was funded by the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme, specifically its capacity-building project for higher education. It was conceived by the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa, or THENSA, and OBREAL Global, a development body promoting South-South-North collaboration in higher education and research.

The project aimed to create a network of higher education reform experts based in THENSA member universities, and supporting strategy revision and capacity-building around the themes of work-integrated learning, entrepreneurship education, competency-based learning and teaching , competencies for the Fourth/Fifth Industrial Revolution, as well as the leadership to drive the changes needed.

“HERESA aimed to address local institutional development needs in an international cooperation context. It had a strong focus on empowering agents of change and leaders,” Elizabeth Colucci of OBREAL Global explained.

Agents of change

The network comprised individuals who were strategically selected, given their roles in overseeing and guiding teaching and learning at their institutions, and who had the potential to be catalysts for change in the sector.

In South Africa, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Central University of Technology, Durban University of Technology, Tshwane University of Technology, UNIVEN and Walter Sisulu University were members.

It also involved the South African Qualifications Authority, European Union partner institutions including Ireland’s Munster Technological University, Finland’s Tampere University of Applied Sciences, France’s Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté, Italy’s Politecnico di Torino, and Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology.

The initiative developed higher education reform capacity in its network through targeted events, technical assistance and shared platforms.

One of these activities, the outcomes of which were reported at this week’s workshop in Johannesburg, was a ‘Leadership for Change’ workshop hosted in Cape Town in March 2023.

The workshop sought to empower transformation champions in response to South Africa’s post-pandemic socio- economic recovery, rapid technological advances, unemployment and the urgent need to develop and enhance learning-and-work pathways.

Bad leaders

One of the findings that have been shared with workshop attendees this week, is that structured interventions are required when individuals in leadership positions:

• Lack knowledge or experience in the area being led;

• Care more about their own success, prestige or image than about those they lead or the initiatives that they are in charge of;

• Are neither self-aware, nor aware of the impact of their actions on others;

• Only think short to medium term; and

• Rule through making people fearful.

Good leaders

Also identified was the need to entrench good practices, exhibited by leaders who:

• Are knowledgeable and experienced in relation to things they are leading in;

• Are kind and care about the people in the communities they are leading, and work on their relationships with people;

• Have the insight and courage to follow the best path, however difficult in the long term;

• Try to understand and engage diverse people and situations; and

• Give people around them hope.

Building on the work of HERESA

How to continue with the work of HERESA in some way or form after the project comes to an end in November was discussed extensively by the project partners at their workshop this week.

“The proposals must still be approved, but what I can say is that there has been a very clear decision that the next phase will be guided by a multipartner secretariat, made up of a range of consortia across the SADC [Southern African Development Community] region. This will help us increase impact, remove redundancy and achieve economies of scale,” Naidoo said.

In terms of leadership development, proposals to be taken forward include a resource book on leadership for change in higher education and related guidelines with toolkits.