Two top ranked universities in governance issues not a crisis- experts

Motion to dismiss the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of SU, Prof Wim de Villiers, was tabled on April 17 at a meeting of the Council. Picture: JEFFREY ABRAHAMS

Motion to dismiss the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of SU, Prof Wim de Villiers, was tabled on April 17 at a meeting of the Council. Picture: JEFFREY ABRAHAMS

Published Apr 29, 2023


Higher education experts and organisations said the governance issues experienced at certain universities in recent months is not a result of a governance crisis in higher education in South Africa.

Despite two top ranked university Vice Chancellors, UCT and Stellenbosch, coming under fire on governance transgressions, and their respective councils at the helm of calls to have independent inquiries against them, higher education professional bodies and experts said this is merely an ‘ebb and flow’ process of governance.

The latest of these was Stellenbosch University Vice Chancellor, Professor Wim de Villers, who is being accused of violating the university's policy on admission, and nepotism after he allegedly approved the placement of a second family member at the university.

Universities South Africa (USAf) acting CEO and spokesperson Mahlubi Mabizela said there is no indication that South African universities are experiencing governance issues.

“Western Cape universities (out of four) in the country have 26 universities which do not reflect any decay in governance and, instead, are thriving. Governance, like other aspects of organisations, go through ebbs and flows whilst the organisation itself is gathering resilience.

“In other words, despite the ebbs and flows, the institutions continue to thrive because lessons are learnt from that process, and improvements are made. Governance in our higher education system, in general, is based on the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997. Since then, the Act has been revised several times to improve and to keep it dynamic with the changing times. Perhaps we are reaching another cycle for its improvement. In other words, higher education and its governance, in particular, is dynamic and must keep up with the changes taking place in its context,” he said.

Mabizela said communities and society, at large, should take a keen interest in what is happening at higher education institutions.

“This is with the purpose to contribute to their further development. That has always been how higher education institutions survived throughout the ages. In fact, universities have a third mandate of engagement (with communities and society) among the other two of teaching/learning and research,” he said.

Kobus Maree, an educational professor of psychology in the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria, said it would be unscientific and unfair to rule that South African universities have governance issues.

“Yes, we have had universities that have made headlines in recent months. What may have happened is that certain people did not act within the required and expected guidelines of governance.

“Let us learn from our mistakes in universities. Let us learn to embrace transformation issues, gender issues and decolonisation. Let us not allow issues to drag. Let us not defend the undefendable . There must be consequences when those in office of authority at universities are out of line,” he said.

The University of Fort Hare has made headlines over the past five years for governance issues, and according to a report released in 2019, by two independent assessors, Professor Chris Brink and Professor Louis Molamu, the UFH had various structural issues.

Earlier this year, University of Fort Hare(UFH) vice-chancellor Sakhele Buhlungu’s bodyguard, Mboneli Vesele, was shot in what is believed to be an attempted attack on Buhlungu.

Stellenbosch University said a motion, in terms of section 42(3) of the SU Statute, to dismiss the Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Wim de Villiers, was tabled on April 17 at a meeting of the Council of Stellenbosch University (SU).

The new Chair of the council at the University, Dr Nicky Newton-King, said the council recognises the impact the issue has had on Stellenbosch University stakeholders.

“Once council has the committee’s report, it will evaluate it and consider the motion brought by Dr Schreiber. Council recognises the importance of addressing this issue as a matter of urgency and is committed to doing so in a manner that is fair to both the University and the Rector and Vice-Chancellor, and in which the institution’s stakeholders can have confidence,” she said.

Council said it decided that the concept of the VC’s discretionary placement should be reviewed in its totality by the relevant academic governance structures for Council’s consideration.