Culture change within public universities could improve performance on many fronts

Published On: 1 November 2019|

Heads of departments who completed the final leg of the Foundation Programme training in Pretoria last week seem to be of the view that even though the training they just completed was empowering, the culture prevailing within their institutions could impede them from fully effecting change where it is necessary, and from discharging their responsibilities optimally.

The two-day event that concluded on Thursday, 30 October was Part Two of the Foundations of Leadership/Management Programme offered within the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme for Heads of Schools and Academic Departments in 2019. HELM is one of two Universities South Africa (USAf) programmes predominantly funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training’s University Capacity Development Programme.

By request of the academics who contributed to this article, their identities are being withheld.

An Acting Head of a Department (HoD) at one of USAf’s member institutions says the HELM Foundation Programme in its entirety has given him a better understanding of the environment within which he is discharging his responsibilities. “I got to understand what informs decision-making at the top levels of management within my institution, and the context within which decisions are made.”

This is a professor appointed to an Acting HoD position earlier in 2019. “I was not particularly receptive to the HoD role as I felt underprepared for the position. I accepted the responsibility because there were not many alternatives to choose from in our typically under-resourced department. Still, I felt that accepting the HoD responsibility was setting myself up for failure.”

When the professor attended Part One of the HELM Foundations Programme in June 2019, he was surprised but was also encouraged to learn that this situation was neither unique to his department nor his institution. “I quickly picked up during the very introductory ice-breaker exercise that I was not the only one disadvantaged. That reality was further confirmed in the workshop that we just concluded.”

He says first of all, being an Acting HoD is very different from being in that position substantively. “An actual HoD relinquishes some of his/her teaching responsibilities, whereas as an Acting incumbent, I assume managerial functions but also bring all the teaching responsibilities with me to the new role. As an HoD, one attends a lot of meetings. Now I have to do that as well as teach and do research supervision.”

If his department were adequately resourced with lecturers, he would probably be able to relinquish at least some of his teaching and supervisory workload.

Recruitment processes are very slow

But even bringing in new lecturers has proven to be a mission. A few participants at last week’s workshop felt that even though some universities can afford to fill in some of the vacancies in their departments, the biggest challenge is posed by slow recruitment processes. In one university, for instance, the motivation to recruit new talent passes — first through the Head of School (HoS) before it proceeds to the Faculty Dean. Only if the Dean approves of the action will the submission make it to Human Resources Management for processing.” This is one aspect of institutional culture that some HoDs wish they could change.

In various group exercises, the HELM participants got to interrogate case studies, draw budgets and examine important elements involved in strategic planning for universities. It was within some of these discussions that the academics’ frustrations on human resources management came to the fore.

As a result of disabling HR policies and practices and the absence of a people-centred culture, it appears that some universities are unable to attract talent, unnecessarily burdening and demoralising existing staff, according to an HoD.

This challenge is not insurmountable, though

Another HoD says at some point he wished that USAf could prescribe standards across the system – for instance, for acceptable Human Resources Management. “But that was until I learned that universities are independent entities which even USAf cannot instruct.”

Even though he admits that, as HoD, he has some power to effect change, “I have no power to change behaviour of a senior incumbent in the position of School Director or Dean.”

He therefore wishes that all directors and deans could undergo HELM training so that all decision-making levels share common knowledge across the system – which they are, according to the HELM strategic plans of 2018 and 2019 as shared by USAf’s HELM Director, Dr Oliver Seale. In fact, the HELM programme also offers the Foundations of Leadership/Management programme for Deans, and Part Two of this programme is taking place in Gauteng from 5 to 6 November 2019. “Chances are that if all these structures could be made aware of the extent to which they frustrate processes, they could well open themselves up to change,” the HoD states.

He believes that bringing together deans, heads of schools and heads of departments under one roof at some point to address common areas of concern could achieve a lot. He says even though the invitation to the Foundation Programme event was open to both HoDs and HoSs, “it may well be that some heads of schools feel adequately equipped to lead and manage. I believe that the HELM facilitators could get every relevant person to attend somehow, and create an environment for conducive engagement. Change really rests in us working collectively towards commonly set goals.”

A senior lecturer from another school in the system says she could not agree more.

“I see HELM as a programme playing the important sector support role of USAf. Unless the programme facilitators gather us with our deans and support staff to unlock culture change within our institutions, I cannot see us achieving much on our own. Just as an example, I cannot imagine asking my Dean to address certain concerns regarding Human Resources. S/he might misinterpret me as suggesting that s/he is not doing his/her job.”

Another professor suggests a different approach

While conceding that institutional culture is at the centre of on-going instability at her institution, another HoD sees herself as part of the solution there.

“I have developed from this workshop, capability to find a way to get involved. First, I need to interrogate whether we are contributing to the realisation of the institutional strategy. We have a wrong culture at our institution and, unfortunately, it informs everything that happens on our campus,” she says. “Another challenge is that there is no agency from staff and disempowerment is evident among certain groups. We just need to identify aspects of the problem within our individual spheres of control and inform solutions. Even if the system is not receptive – I’ve been taught in this programme to not go back to look for my old comfort zone. What we must do, as an academic department, is to be part of curriculum development strategies to see how our discipline feeds into the bigger picture — and gain an understanding of what the school needs from our own spaces. This is all about taking responsibility; being responsive and not avoiding taking action because it gives one some semblance of comfort.”

No consequences for wrong-doers

During strategic planning discussions within the same event, one participant mentioned that although universities are supposed to be run like corporate entities for their own sustainability, they tolerate a lot of inefficiencies in processes. The participant said that because institutions still attract students and the business of teaching and learning continues — regardless (in other words, the institutions do not necessarily collapse) there really are no consequences for the wrongdoers. Thus, this Foundations Programme of HELM provided a platform for rigorous exchange on what is being done well, what needs to change and what the role of HoDs or HoSs is, in bringing about the desired change.

Whereas last week’s workshop covered Aligning Strategy and Operations; Value-based and Efficient Resourcing and Leading and Managing People for Effective Performance, Part One of the same programme had encompassed Context of the Contemporary University; Policy and Regulatory Drivers as well as Academic Leadership and Management in Complexity and Change.

Meanwhile, institutional culture change is one of key priorities of USAf’s Transformation Strategy Group (TSG) in the short to medium term. USAf will, in due course, share information on activities being rolled out within both the TSG and the HELM programme, in the context of institutional culture change.