A giant leader leaves a trail of achievements in his path at Universities South Africa   

Published On: 30 September 2022|

Change is an important and necessary constant; it allows organisations to re-imagine themselves from time to time in the context of shifting environments, and Universities South Africa (USAf) is no exception. These were the opening words of the outgoing Chief Executive Officer, Professor Ahmed Bawa, at his last formal interaction with USAf’s Board of Directors at a special meeting convened to bid him goodbye on 9 September.

Ahead of hanging up his hat on 30 September, Professor Bawa (left) acknowledged the “absolute privilege” it had been for him to work in the CEO position, engineering with the Department of Higher Education and Training — among key stakeholders, the state and future of Higher Education. “I have enjoyed my time here,” is how he summed up the past six and a half years at the helm.

He recalled two major disruptions in Higher Education in the past seven years – the first being #Fees Must Fall alongside #Rhodes Must Fall. While these two events shook up the sector, they also opened up a new dimension of engagement of society, and students. Professor Bawa referenced a moment in October 2016, when 18 universities were on the brink of a total shut down.

The second disruption, brought about by CoViD-19, “showed us the importance of building and working through partnerships – without which completing the 2020 academic year would probably have been completed with difficulty.”

He was pleased, nonetheless, to highlight his contribution to USAf in this seven-year tenure.

Achievements at the USAf Office

Starting in the USAf Office, the outgoing CEO said the organisation had changed significantly, thanks to the Board injecting an operating budget, year-on-year, and for its ability to retain staff. As a result, USAf had now deepened roots within South Africa’s Higher Education, and society.

Clean audits all the way

From a Finance and Administration perspective, USAf had enjoyed clean audits for his entire tenure – an excellent outcome by all accounts. This he credited to a vigilant team headed by Director: Finance and Administration, Mr Emert Nkhatu, and even more to a diligent culture of compliance where everyone ensures that policies are not flouted.  “Without that culture it would have been very difficult to get through these audits.”

Amazing growth and complexity had seen USAf collaborating with a range of partners, each bringing their own unique modality and complexities in operations.  “We are now a much more fluid organisation equipped to establish a new account almost weekly to refence the donations we receive.

“In the last three years we’ve been able to raise R1,2billion for the sector – thanks to Dr Linda Meyer, a fireball that clubs away at these things and does it exceptionally well.  The Office is now a very different organisation from what it was years ago.”

Efficiencies in administrative processes  

Professor Bawa mentioned a vast improvement in technological systems, a process that had yielded paperless administrative processes starting from procurement, extending to human resources and going all the way to financial management.

“Staff are all now on the 50th percentile in remuneration, an important factor to maintain for continuity, and to keep USAf competitive. In 2023, a job grading exercise will get underway.”

He also cited staff study allowances, a tool that had created a wonderful culture of learning and staff development.

Progress regarding the Matriculation Board

The CEO said with the implementation of Section 74 of the Higher Education Act now underway, it was important to keep up the momentum and not let it slip.  Government had set the timeline to complete the process by January 2024. The ongoing engagements with Umalusi were bearing fruit.  “It is important to understand how the handover to Umalusi will take place. If we do this well, the Matriculation Board (MB) transfer will be smooth and seamless. I am pleased to announce that the Matriculation Board services are now completely online – a wonderful outcome of the Office continuing to improve its processes, and of CoViD-19.”

He also mentioned that MB’s move to Umalusi would exclude the administration function concerning the Admissions Committee. This would continue being co-ordinated under USAf, and would therefore require maintaining the capacity to continue the secretariat services rendered to that group.

Operations and Sector Support 

Regarding support to the higher education sector, the outgoing CEO flagged the need to diversify funding sources for USAf’s two flagship programmes, namely the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme and the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme. Currently funded, in the main, by the DHET, the CEO expressed concern over the ailing fiscus, the overall diminishing funding for the sector and the  relative uncertainty associated with leadership change at the funding department.

Beyond programmes, he mentioned that all six strategy groups were functioning well and gathering momentum. USAf just needed to strengthen the connection between the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA) and the World of Work Strategy Group.  The Communities of Practice were also progressing well.

Cross-cutting projects 

The Study on Higher Education Funding – Professor Bawa alerted his peers that the report on this study was almost complete and ready for presentation to the Funding Strategy Group (FSG). Findings would be presented to the Board in due course.

Study on Higher Education Impact on the Economy – Professor Bawa was working with Professor Anastassios Pouris to publish the outcomes of the study as a research paper, thereby allowing for the findings to be interrogated academically. The study indicates that the economic impact of our universities to the economy is more than R500 billion per annum.

National Graduate Destination Survey (NGDS) – this project, long put on ice due to funding challenges, had eventually secured funding from the ETDP SETA in the context of its current collaboration with USAf. In the spirit of ensuring that USAf remains embedded with sector, USAf had taken much care to ensure that the research projects it engaged in were done in collaboration with colleagues in the sector. Discussions with the HSRC and Stats SA to take on the NGDS had, at the time of reporting, not yet borne fruit.

Shared Services – extensively explored in FSG deliberations and during the Higher Education Conference of 2021, the notion of Shared Services wasbeing touted in, for example, a platform of technology solutions for available to all 26 universities for their administrative, research and teaching functions. This would contribute to building equality in the system and to the sustainability of institutions. The CEO flagged to the Board, the need to explore the Minister of Higher Education’s appetite for coming on board in this regard.

National Environment Dynamics

Professor Bawa then drew to the Board’s consideration, relational dynamics in the national policy environment that warranted dedicated attention. Proceeding satisfactorily were engagements with professional bodies and the Council on Higher Education to understand the different types of accreditations and how they relate to one another. Parallel engagements with private higher education providers were also proceeding well. Recognising that the privates make up 20% of the sector, it was important to work together to, for instance, facilitate smooth articulation from private to public institutions — notwithstanding the different business models within which private and public institutions operate.

  • Student Funding — once again, Professor Bawa expressed alarm at the fact that the state’s important contribution to the DHET Bursary Programme administered by NSFAS was now at about the same level as the total government subsidy to the sector. He reiterated his concern for the sustainability of the student funding model, especially considering the annual shortfalls that had been made up, in part, by dipping into the infrastructure and block grants.  It was therefore important to keep an eye on developments in this regard.
  • Private sector spending on Research and Development — Professor Bawa said there was a steady decline in private sector spending on R&D, which suggested a decline in private sector demand for research undertaken by universities. He felt that this was very serious and warranted attention.
  • Open Science will materialise – he said a draft policy was being considered by Cabinet. He was concerned that not enough had been done to study the impact of Open Science on universities’ functioning. “How do we ensure that different policies are not pulling in different directions?  I suggest we engage more seriously on this matter,” Professor Bawa urged the Board.

Developments in the Global Environment

  • The shifting global geo-politics — Turning to developments in the world, Professor Bawa cautioned on the enormous implications of the cold war between the United States and China, Europe and Russia. He said universities had a role to play in bridging societies to build a global commons of scholars and scholarship.  They could not be dragged into the political fray.  He encouraged the importance of building and maintaining bridges to facilitate the free flow of ideas.
  • Growing anti-intellectualism – he said there was a global decline in the trust placed on experts and, by extension, universities. The boundary conditions for truth were being eroded, he said. He was of the view that deliberate strategies ought to be engaged in to address this very serious matter. “How do we work to restore, re-establish trust in scholarship? It will be a big risk to not engage this burning issue,” he said.
  • Scholarly publishing – he also cautioned on massive changes coming in this context, with the White House having issued a warning to all public research funders to the effect that any research carried out with public funding must automatically be available to all, on open access platforms. China was also showing big shifts in new modalities towards peer review and the use of new forms of scholarly output. These global changes would have a major impact on how academia determined promotions.
  • The new technology moment — Professor Bawa brought to the attention of those present that the growing influence of the digital and other technologies on research and teaching were changing the landscape. He warned of enormous pressures coming to bear on the scientific method with implications on the future of research and research infrastructure.
  • Grand challenges facing humanity require more integration – Professor Bawa was of the view that as South Africa’s universities addressed the grand challenges facing humanity, they would have to reimagine the academic structures of universities to facilitate the shift from reductive modes of knowledge production to more integrative ones.

‘Mateboho Green is USAf’s Manager: Corporate Communication.