South African Students Congress

Merger Challenges to Institutional Governance

N. Themba Mosia
Medunsa Campus of the University of Limpopo


The anxiety about mergers and incorporations in South African higher education has come and gone with the last group of mergers having taken effect in January 2005. What remains is the implementation of the restructuring agenda at an institutional level with the support and monitoring of the process by the state. The higher education landscape has now dramatically changed from an 'old order' into the 'new dispensation' for a considerably long period of time to come. At the core of these unprecedented challenges in our higher education system is the extent to which institutional governance will play a critical role in fulfilling the national mandate of building successful and well managed institutions of higher learning in South Africa. In this paper we argue that institutional governance is at the core of meeting the challenges and possibly exceeding the expectations of the South African public in building sustainable institutions of higher learning that contribute significantly to the human resources development in this country and elsewhere.

What stands out is that there are a myriad of challenges at both systemic and institutional levels. One of the key questions is what can be done to sustain this change in universities to meet the challenges of the African University of the 21st Century? The legislative framework alone is not enough to bring about meaningful change in higher education. Following the principal Act (Higher Education 101 of 1997) there has been numerous amendments which were aimed at streamlining the transformation process and further integrating the binary divide that perpetuated the differences and undue competition among institutions of higher learning in this country. Although this chaotic legislation has been passed, it doesn't appear, by any stretch of imagination to be the panacea for substantive challenges facing the merged institutions.

The research agenda in this paper included a random selection of ten merged HEIs. A qualitative research approach was undertaken with a program of unstructured interviews. Experiences shared from higher education institutions (HEIs) provide a clear indication of how the different institutional cultures, climates and politics play a leading role above the core business of higher education institutions, especially at the level of governing councils. Lessons learned from some HEIs are not only different, but at opposite ends of the continuum. What needs to happen is to move towards some degree of convergence that will address the policy framework as outlined in the National Plan for Higher Education (2001), but more importantly to address local needs and global challenges facing the African University of the 21st Century.

Guidelines to mergers and incorporations

The rapid changes that have taken place in higher education since the early nineties have indeed confirmed some earlier concerns that the state would eventually over-regulate the activities of higher education institutions in South Africa. By way of illustration, in April 2003 the Ministry of Education issued the policy document on Higher Education Restructuring and Transformation: Guidelines to Mergers and Incorporations to all universities and technikons. This was four months after the Cabinet approval of restructuring proposals in November 2002. The Cabinet approval came four months after the Ministry's policy document, Transformation and Restructuring: A New Institutional Landscape for Higher Education (Government Gazette No 23549, 21 June 2002). In the Guidelines to Mergers and Incorporations document, the Ministry gave HEIs effectively two months within which to respond on the

The above requirements were stipulated in the provisions of the amendment to the Higher Education Act and they required a process of consultation within institutions as well as with the merging parties. Clearly this placed undue pressure on HEIs who have by then been in a compliance mode without much reflection on the road ahead. Looking at this issue from the perspective of HEIs confirms the latter argument, whereas looking at it from the perspective of the state confirms some sense of urgency in starting the restructuring process because historically, universities are known for their slowness and resistance to change. A critical reflection on the process leading up to the merging of institutions of higher learning is a clear case of how vulnerable universities are in Africa, especially with respect to state intervention and regulation of their activities, all in the name of resource constraints. An observation by Clark (2004: 107) that 'decades of futile efforts to strengthen universities in Africa during the last half of the twentieth century had given rise, with good cause, to extremely pessimistic predictions of the impossibility of sustained reform. Trying to change an African university, it was claimed, was like trying to move a cathedral…' Part of the cooperation of universities with the process in South Africa had to do with history – breaking away from the past discriminatory policies and supporting the mandate of the democratically elected government of social development and reform. Another reason is precisely because most public institutions are not able to sustain themselves financially, and have to sing the tune of the state in steering the transformation agenda albeit within unreasonable time frames.

The Guidelines to Mergers and Incorporations, nevertheless serve as a useful resource to all institutions with minor adjustments in certain cases. It has been decided by the Ministry that this process needs to be steered by the Merger Unit in the Higher Education Branch of the DoE and that all the necessary support and financing of merger related activities will be borne by the state. This is another issue worth revisiting because some of the institutions claim that the reimbursement of merger costs is a big challenge.

Instituional Governance

The legislative framework in South African higher education prescribes that the governing Council, academic Senate, the Institutional Forum and to some extent the Student Representative Council form part of the broader governance structures of universities. In this paper focus is placed on governing councils or more precisely the interim councils' mandate of ensuring a smooth transition from two or more entities into one going concern within the legislative framework. Ordinarily, no short-cuts or long-drawn activities were envisaged by the drafters of the policy framework document. Numerous factors are critical in ensuring that good corporate governance takes place and is sustained in the interest of the core business of higher education institutions.

Some of these factors as shared with a selected group of merged institutions of higher learning are the following:

Capacity and Process

The process leading up to the establishment of the Interim Councils was outlined in the Government Gazette of 21 June 2002 as stated above. In it, the Ministry invited nominations into the interim councils, but it also stated that the Minster will appoint the Chairpersons of these governance structures. Although a consultation process was encouraged in the nomination process, it appears in other instances that institutions of higher learning submitted names to the Minister without much transparency and consultation. Two months was given to institutions to comply, and in the event they would not comply the Minister would at his discretion take remedial action. The process for appointing Chairpersons of interim councils was not known to institutions, nor was the mandate given to them in their appointment letters save to say that they were to be drawn from a pool of community leaders who were not serving on any of the councils of merging institutions. An announcement in the Government Gazette No. 25737 of 14 November 2003 revealed the identity of nominated individuals and appointed chairpersons at the discretion of the Minister. It took certain institutions of higher learning by surprise to learn who their chairpersons were. In other quarters of the higher education sector it did not really matter who was appointed as long as the restructuring agenda was taken forward in the best interests of the nation.

Effectively, interim councils have a minimum of seven and a maximum of nine external members. Additional three members could be drawn from internal members within the university. The criteria for the appointment of internal members was not clarified in the policy document, so institutions could use their discretion to fill the available spaces in the interim council, which would obviously be senior management such as the Interim Vice Chancellor and probably deputies. What is noteworthy is that these three co-opted members have no voting rights and they represent the interim management. This arrangement is in my view a clear contraction of the provisions of the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997 section 27 which prescribed that representation of different stakeholders in governing councils is an inherent feature of the Act. This provision as contemplated in the Act is also applicable in the Standard Institutional Statute and was fully canvassed in the Guidelines to Mergers and Incorporation (2003: 31). Perhaps this contradiction could be justified by the time frames allocated to these mergers as it discussed in the time factor paragraph below.

Another contentious issue that relates to capacity of interim councils is in the area of attendance of meetings by members. It is reported by some institutions of higher learning that availability of members is a problem. Attendance of meetings of council committees is even a much bigger problem. In another instance it was reported that 'council agendas were too thick, and members don't have time to read' before hand and are therefore given reading time of forty five minutes at the beginning of the council meeting. Interestingly, some of the members keep themselves busy with cell phone conversation. Although this matter has implications for capacity, it relates more to another factor on the quality of decisions taken by interim councils.

The Time Factor

In terms of the Higher Education Amendment Act 23 of 2001 s6 (5) The Minister must in the notice contemplated in subsection (1) establish an interim council for a period not exceeding six months, to perform the functions relating to the governance of the single public higher education institution contemplated in subsection (1), except the making of an institutional statute. In anticipation of the complexities that may accompany these mergers the legislator further made provision in section 6 (6) that the Minister may extend the period referred to in subsection (5) once for a further period not exceeding six months. In essence the interim phase of the mergers may take an effective twelve months, but institutions were advised to complete the merger interim phase in six months.

The restructuring proposals and new institutional landscape divided the period over two years with the first group of mergers and incorporations commencing in January 2004. The second group comprising of mergers only was to commence in January 2005. In spite of the many challenges facing HEIs the formal and legal aspects of the mergers are complete except the recent delay by Ministerial decree of the Eastern Cape institutions.

A critical reflection on the time allocated for these mergers suggests that there was not enough time available for institutions to prepare for the transition into a new phase. Even a voluntary merger such as ML Sultan Technikon and Technikon Natal took a number of years to conclude. Seemingly there were other deeper reasons that explained the snail-pace of this merger as one Vice Chancellor put it in Jansen et. al (2002: 151-152) that are using as instruments for the merger entities that are themselves threatened. It's so ironic that we should be sitting here pushing for a merger. Potentially that's a problem. That may be the reason that it has taken so many years. One wonders whether in a merger of this kind it is actually wise to have such interested parties driving the process. One possible source for delay is that people who are entrusted with the mission to merge are interested parties.

The situation in 'forced mergers' became even more difficult to contend with. Institutions had to rise above the micro-politics and personal interests to support the national restructuring agenda. The challenges that faced the 2004 group were more threatening especially because of the time factor. One institution that went expeditiously through the interim phase expressed the view that '...had it not been for our intense planning, we could not have completed the interim phase in three months'. Although the DoE was allegedly unhappy with the haste with which the merging institution went about to pass through the interim phase, evidence at their disposal confirms that they did the right thing by not prolonging the uncertainty that would otherwise have devastating effects for the new institution.

In another example the interim period lasted for twelve months, and when the substantive council was finally appointed it turned around some of the critical decisions in relation to budget processes that were made by the interim council, and in the words of one council member, 'the interim phase should be as short as possible and once the new council has been appointed every effort has to be made to finalize the organizational structure of the new institution and the appointment of the senior management as soon as possible'.

A reported example of good practice is two institutions that merged and incorporated certain campuses within the recommended time of six months and yet had to face challenges that were addressed in 'a professional manner'. It is reported that the services of an external consulting firm were engaged and apart from intense planning there was a lot of bargaining that took place in order to complete the formal task within the six month period that is contemplated in the Act. Whereas time was of the essence, it was clear that there were many outstanding issues that were preferably left for the permanent council to complete or take forward. Many of these had to do with human resources issues.

It is evident from the above examples that even though time was of the essence for the Ministry of Education in concluding the formal process of the mergers, institutions were not ready to embrace the process within such a short period of time. The implementation remains a challenge.

Quality Considerations

At the heart of the restructuring agenda is the extent to which quality is given consideration. Apart from the formal structures established at national level to address quality enhancement, institutions themselves are responsible to ensure that quality permeates through all levels of decision making from classroom interaction to high level decision making at council. HEIs were asked the extent to which quality featured prominently in their engagement with the merger project. It appeared from the outset that only lip service is paid to the concept of quality. Universities by their very nature are large multi-million rand corporations that have systems in place and therefore propel themselves. An illusive concept such as quality can easily be used by everyone to suit whatever agenda they have in mind.

One respondent asserted that there was a connection between senate and council but in an attempt to minimize an information overload, members are taken through a power point presentation by the chairperson of senate to update council of the academic project. It seems to this institution that their way of reporting is appreciated by the council that is well informed of their fiduciary duties, which came about from a series of workshops conducted for council members. In this particular institution the quality of decision making is reported to be above satisfactory levels. The researcher got an impression from this institution that a fair amount of sugar coating is being done to project a positive image of this institution, which in the recent past had enormous governance problems. However, the benefit of the doubt may be granted to the extent that the institutional leadership appeared committed to correct the past embarrassment. Additionally, the institution is one of the few merged institutions that has already launched its ten year strategic planning document which has full ownership by council. The chairperson of council in this particular university appeared involved and having a healthy rapport with senior management. This was one of the few examples where governance and management roles and responsibilities were clearly delineated – a lesson that could be learned by other merged institutions of higher learning. An inference that can be drawn from this relationship is that the quality of decisions made is acceptable and practicable. This usually makes the implementation process much smoother, and management can concentrate on the business of managing the institution whereas council can govern as directed by the Higher Education Act.

Another scenario had to do with a council that seemed embroiled in institutional politics and serving interests of their respective institutions prior to the merger. In the words of one senior management respondent, 'the [interim] council should not get involved with micro-managing the institution! They have to provide strategic direction and base their decisions on the strategic advice and documentation developed by the interim management structure'. This appeared like an institution in real turmoil as a result of institutional politics taking precedence over the core academic project of the university. By way of illustration it was reported that a budget was finalized and was to be implemented when after a prolonged period of time the substantive council was put in place – as a result of the delay in the Ministerial appointments to council – and the percentage fee increase in student fees that was approved by the interim council was overturned in the interest of populism on campus and thus making it difficult to meet the cash flow requirements of the institution after careful and considerate planning was agreed to by the merging entities. Clearly, if this scenario is anything to go by, it says much about the quality of decision making by the council of that university. However, there are two sides of the story and it is my view that there must have been a serious debate before such a conclusion was reached.

Quality, according to Robert Pirsig in his classical reading Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1999), like beauty or justice, is in the eye of the beholder. Whereas traditionally quality in higher education is largely confined to the core business of teaching and learning, research and community engagement, in this paper we use the concept in its wider sense to reflect on how governance structures constantly appraise themselves in performing their functions. It is interesting to note how some institutions take this matter seriously especially to the extent that they were developing a performance management instrument to monitor individual council members against certain criteria like availability for meetings, areas of expertise and the like. The difficulty of course would be how to deal with situations where members are judged to be under-performing. Would they be asked to resign? What about their fixed term appointments at council? Unless it is clearly stipulated in the institutional statute that if a member missed a certain number of meetings they would be deemed to have automatically excluded themselves from the membership of council, it could be difficult to remove them from office.

In another interesting and yet challenging scenario, it is reported that agendas for council meetings are poorly prepared, the minutes are not recorded properly partly as a result of the distribution of volumes of documents during the proceedings of council meetings. It does in fact reflect poorly on that particular institution and the quality of the decisions made under those circumstances leaves a lot to be desired. In terms of section 41 of the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997, it is imperative for Council to keep accurate records and information. If indeed there are situations where council adopts a laissez faire attitude towards reporting requirements, the restructuring agenda will have serious impediments that will of necessity adversely affect the core business of that particular institution. In an attempt to validate the information provided by some institutions it became clear that the merger project means different things to different stakeholders. Personal interest and institutional interests appeared to be in serious conflict, and the broader national restructuring agenda is perceived as a way of 'settling old scores' and 'brutalizing certain institutional leaders'. According to Rosovsky (1990: 273-275), 'in universities, the quality of decisions is improved by consciously preventing conflict of interest'. The issue of conflict of interest plays itself out in complex organizations such as universities where members of governing councils also have communitywide responsibilities, and we may reasonably assume that few of us are immune to the temptation of pursuing private interests.

In an attempt to understand how merging institutions relate to the national priorities and/or emphasis as set out recently by the Department of Education, namely, Planning, Quality and Funding, it was clear that the quality imperatives are not highly regarded. As an example some council members do not see how they fit into the quality agenda pursued by the Higher Education Quality Committee. They see it as the business of management and the academics to ensure that quality and quality assurance be taken care off. A link to quality and planning and resource allocation gives us an indication that a lot of education needs to be done. Perhaps this attitude is a result of more pressing issues of merging institutions and anything else would take its own course at whatever pace. In some of the entrepreneurial universities not seriously affected by the mergers there is evidence that quality and planning have much prominence and the allocation of resources takes the academic project as the epicenter of institutional development. This factor remains a challenge for merging institutions to realize that past histories of universities and technikons in this country can no longer be an excuse for under-performance and mediocrity in the not so distant future. In the words of the Honourable State President of the Republic of South Africa, Dr Thabo Mbeki on receiving the honorary doctorate from the Africa International University in Khartoum, Sudan on 2 January 2005,

'... I would like to suggest that if any African university is to have relevance to the challenges of our day, it should have in its curriculum and as part of its central focus, the processes that are unfolding on the continent and use its research work and teachings to give more content and direction to the challenges and work of the African Union and its development programme, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD)' (p.5)

It is my contention therefore that if due consideration is given to quality imperatives institutions of higher learning in the African continent could eradicate the stigma attached to them of third or fourth rate institutions characterized by student unrests, poor governance and lack of leadership. An understanding of the notions of quality in higher education as propagated by Harvey and Green (1993: 11-27) that exceptionality, perfection, fitness for/of purpose, transformation and value for money can go a long way in enhancing the knowledge and contribution of role players in institutional governance. Harvey (1995: 12) further remarked that ' the quality agenda will continue to grow as the nature and purpose of higher education shift to reflect the rapidly changing world economy'. A deliberate agenda to enlighten the governing councils about the quality project in higher education will lead towards more awareness about how effective institutions can be in Africa.

Effectiveness of Governance Structures

Underlying this factor is the declared inefficiency of the higher education sector in South Africa and the need to restructure the institutional landscape to meet the needs of the society. The reduction of institutions of higher learning is justified by certain quarters of our society as necessary, and mergers and incorporations are seen as a cost cutting mechanism in the long term. Another dormant view is, if we are to have a learning society, why would the state cut the number of universities instead of increasing them? The proliferation of the private higher education institutions is a case in point that this country needs more institutions of higher learning than we have at present. The increasing number of international students particularly from the SADC region is another contributing factor to an increase in the number of institutions in this country. This argument is obviously not helping any debates in South African higher education at this stage, however, it is worth noting that mergers per se are not helping the situation in the African continent, and this indirectly overburdens one mega university to serve large numbers of learners throughout the continent in a distant mode.

What became pertinent in this paper was how effective are our governance structures in merging institutions. A unique example in the South African higher education governance framework is that of the Institutional Forum, a structure that is created to advise council on numerous matters that are identified in the Higher Education Act. This is a forum that is unique to the South African model, and it does not appear to be effective in most institutions of higher learning. Its advisory role is said to be sought mainly with the appointments of Vice Chancellors and other senior managers, and even that is not an activity that requires a formidable structure such as this one that is also created in terms of the law governing higher education. With one exception, institutions of higher learning appeared not to see any significance of the institutional forum because most of the members serving in this structure serve in various other committees of the universities. It is regarded by some institutions as a waste of time and resources. The history of the power struggle between councils and transformation forums in the past decade or so may have led to the inadvertent marginalization of this structure of governance. There doesn't appear much that councils are doing to salvage the situation where institutional forums are not effective. The Ministry of Education is also silent about this seeming redundant structure.

The effectiveness of senate as a governance structure primarily responsible for the academic project of the university is not questionable. The current crisis has to do with the membership of senate in most merged institutions. It is reported that the membership is inordinately large as a result of the provisions of the Standard Institutional Statute. To some extent the effectiveness of senate as a body is questionable because first of all institutions have to grapple with the quorum, and once it is reached in certain instances it becomes difficult to run a meeting of over 300 members at certain places because all institutions are combined and the collective membership exceeds acceptable limits of a normal senate, and additionally, certain members loose interest and don't apply their minds to the business of senate. This is a challenge that institutions can address once they write up their own statutes to be in line with the Higher Education Act, but align the activities in such a way that the effectiveness of the senate can be measured without difficulty.

The role of the student government in the merger process has not been prominent in some institutions. Where the student leadership seemed to have made any meaningful contribution, is in their engagement with the interim management at their institutions. There is no representation in the interim council as indicated above and is prescribed by law. As a result some institutions were plunged into turmoil as cultures clashed, tensions mounted and the perennial fee problem resurfaced in January and February of 2005. My view is that if students had some representation at the highest level as they are used to in this country, some of the clashes could have been avoided and the wasted time for the academic programme could have been saved.

Apart from good corporate practice that seem evident in some merged institutions there is a disturbing pattern that has emerged in others where campus politics and individual agendas appear to stand in the way of institutional effectiveness. A case in point is where some of the institutions are not able to complete their mandate within the six month period allocated to the interim phase of the mergers. Not much public intervention has been forthcoming from the Ministry to actually objectively interrogate why these institutions are not able to complete their mandate. The effectiveness of the governance structures is dependant on some of the principles outlined in the King II Report (2002) on Good Corporate Governance particularly, accountability and transparency. It is only in recent media publications that the Minister of Education is seemingly contemplating to monitor the performance of university councils in order to measure their effectiveness. My informed view is, unless the 'Alcapone Factor' characterized by imposition and lack of differentiated roles between governance and management, the effectiveness of governing councils will continue to be adversely compromised in certain instances.

The Rhetorical Leadership Question

It is an undeniable fact that the leadership of higher education institutions in the past decade has been characterized by daunting challenges ranging from complete marginalization by governing councils in certain places, to violent attacks in others, thereby partially contributing in the exodus of quality leadership that would not wish to be subjected to brutal attacks within the wall of higher learning. In his provocative 40th Hoernle Memorial Lecture, Jansen (2004: 8-10) states that there is a crisis in institutional leadership which 'reflect on the disturbingly poor quality and credibility of higher education leadership after apartheid, and how this has additionally contributed to the demise of the South African university'. This observation was also made by Wolff (2003) that the leadership of some South African universities was on a downward spiral. It is not difficult to present a set of criteria required to have quality leadership. The challenge is where do you find them lately? In some of the interviews conducted it was evident that institutions will take a bit of time to recover from the exploitation and manipulation by some institutional leaders [at times in cahoots with their councils].

In expressing his disgust at the salaries paid to some heads of universities, Jansen (p.10) asks what this says about the leadership represented in university councils who hire and pay Vice Chancellors exceedingly high pay packages. My contention is that the search for good leadership with strong intellectual capacity has come and gone with the higher education environment that has not nurtured the talent and intellectual prowess that once characterized our universities. What remains is a group of self-made opportunists who wish to grab the glory and a pay cheque that is not well deserved. There are exceptions of course in our system, and the inhibiting higher education environment makes it exceedingly difficult for good leaders to lead and manage with courage and a great deal of self-discipline. Lessons from Australian higher education restructuring appear, with short hindsight of two and a half years, to have created and sustained a crisis, with tight yet ineffectual control and neurotic disruption as a continuing state (Warner & Palfreyman 2003: 136). Usually, though, it is a failure of leadership and culture, leading to a breakdown of institutional confidence and self-confidence, rather than of structure.


In conclusion there are a number of questions that come to mind. What are the attributes of an African University of the 21st Century? What went wrong in higher education governance that seemingly perpetuates the demise of vulnerable institutions in Africa? Merger challenges to institutional governance will remain on the agenda of HEIs for some time to come. The following lessons from Henry Rosovsky (1990: 261 – 282) at Harvard University on university governance were summed up as Seven Principles to Ensure Reliable Performance:

The above principles are still applicable to address our contemporary challenges facing governance structures in the 21st century.


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