HELM Summit 2022 explores innovative leadership development for Higher Education in complexity and global change

Published On: 16 November 2022|

Shifting global parameters and heightened uncertainties highlight our universally shared vulnerability and point to how interconnected we are as a society: economically, socially, politically, and culturally.

A new breed of leaders and managers with a new set of skills is needed to navigate these turbulent waters.

This was the view of three speakers at the 2022 HELM (Higher Education Leadership and Management) Summit whose aim is to explore developing leadership for sustainability and change in higher education in South Africa, on the entire African continent and globally.

The summit will also consider practical implications for leadership development in the context of disruption, complexity, change, and in the pursuit for the Engaged University.

The three-day event is being hosted in collaboration with the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), a representative association of Deans of Arts and Sciences in the United States of America. About 200 delegates from around the world logged into the opening session on Tuesday.

Dr Phethiwe Matutu, Universities South Africa (USAf) CEO, keynote speaker, Dr Marcia Socikwa, the Deputy Director-General in the Department of Higher Education and Training, and Professor Ihron Rensburg, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and HELM Senior Associate, kicked off the summit, all stressing the importance of rethinking old ways.

The three speakers outlined some of the questions that would be raised during deliberations. Professor Rensburg, who co-directed the opening session with Dr Oliver Seale, the HELM Director, said: “The conflicts across the globe – including in Ukraine and Syria – highlight our shared vulnerability and show how highly interconnected we are”.

Geo-political context

“The way that the geo-political context is framed shapes sustainability, development and change, and higher education is impacted by these changes in terms of its core mission, financial sustainability and economic and social relevance,” Rensburg (left) said.

He told delegates that this complex changing context raised several leading questions:

  • How do we locate Higher Education and its leadership to advance sustainability and development?
  • How do we enhance the collaborative effort for national and global change?
  • What leadership frameworks can guide our thinking?
  • How can Higher Education leadership monitor and evaluate contributions?

He also listed several sub-themes that needed to be explored:

  • What has changed in global and regional contexts that will require a rethinking of the meaning and practice of leadership in higher education?
  • What is required in relation to leadership development that will allow for complexity thinking, agile and nimble capacity for change, and for innovation and fresh thinking?
  • Are there sufficient organisational roles in relation to collaboration, partnerships, and innovation needed for organisations to move towards sustainable change and development?

Sector’s special role

Welcoming delegates to the summit, USAf’s Dr Matutu (right) said the Higher Education sector’s role was to ensure improved economic participation and social development of youth and adults and to produce and exploit knowledge for economic and societal benefit.

“Of course, that means a strong engagement and immersion within society. The HELM programme is a DHET-funded initiative undertaken through USAf.” She explained that this summit was following on the heels of the 2020 HELM Summit that was themed ‘Leading and Managing the University in Africa for Disruption, Complexity and Change, and USAf’s 2021 Higher Education Conference themed The Engaged University.

“This 2022 summit has a special focus on leadership development for the sector. We all know how important leadership is to the achievement of our goals, and for institutions to be sustainable and also live their missions and their vision. This summit focuses on drawing on the challenges discussed within the context of disruption, complexity, change and The Engaged University, by reviewing what this means for developing leadership for sustainability and change.”

Practical solutions

“It is about being practical in terms of the kind of leadership required in order to achieve what was envisaged and discussed in the two previous conferences.”

She then named the event objectives:

  • To create a platform for leadership-critical engagement
  • To critically engage in leadership development within diverse organisational settings
  • To critically engage with the pressing challenges facing universities globally and in South Africa
  • To critically engage with change solutions to these challenges
  • To build powerful new networks globally and within the global south.

“It is important for us as participants of this conference to come up with the solutions we envisage for the kind of leadership that is required within the specific context of higher education – locally, continentally, and globally.”

A timely conversation for the sector

Continuing this thread of thought, Dr Socikwa, in her keynote address, said the summit was hosting a very timely conversation in the sector around leadership. This topic was relevant to those in higher education wishing to grapple with transformational and sustainability challenges facing the post-school and education training system – as well as the wider society.

She said the continuous uncertainty in the world was affecting global well-being, pointing out social-economic inequalities, all seen against a backdrop of compounding global challenges: climate change, poverty and hunger, gender inequality, health, clean water, and sanitation.

CoViD-19 unmasks crises

“We are still seized with combatting the after-effects of the pandemic — our universities have been at the forefront to achieve solutions. But the pandemic is connected to a wider set of crises like social inequality and technological disruption. And, of course a crisis of the global capitalist system that some would describe as a crisis of West vs East.

“Add to this, war, and ongoing violent conflicts… clearly, we are feeling very vulnerable. We are in the midst of heightened uncertainties, and we realise that we are extremely interconnected as societies, economically socially and politically.”

Dr Socikwa (left) said the way the global geo-political context was framed impacted higher education. “In the last two decades, the world of higher education has changed dramatically. This environment has had significant implications for university governance, leadership, and management.” South African higher education, she said, is in transition and grappling with major challenges arising from all the interlinked, interconnected problems and opportunities and, in some instances, development imperatives.

“Traditional methods of governance, leadership, and management as applied in universities have been surpassed by corporate-like approaches – characterised by performance measures. So too the increasingly vociferous demands from students and other stakeholders for more democratised forms of governance, leadership, and decision-making in local universities. Increasingly, leaders and management in our institutions are confronted by voices and tones they have not heard before.”

Leadership crisis

Dr Socikwa said balancing global and unique local environmental drivers were the key to survival and success. “Some writers suggest that the higher education sector has a leadership crisis and requires a new kind of leadership and management that is attuned to transformation and pluralism, on one hand, and performance and efficiency on the other. I would like to add empathy into the mix.”

In South Africa, she said, the notion of university leadership has only recently expanded to a broader understanding that includes heads of academic departments, deans, deputies, administrative leadership, registrars, and faculty managers.

“Their need for structural and systematic training development programmes is as acute today as it was yesterday. This applies both in the academy and the administration of universities. It is for these reasons of advancing management that the DHET partnered with USAf to develop and implement HELM.”

HELM projects

Although HELM had been in existence since 2002, she said it achieved a focused strategic direction in 2017 with financial support through the University Capacity Development Programme (UCDP) and input from the DHET in partnership with USAf.

Reconfigured in 2018, HELM offered valuable perspectives on a contemporary leadership and management context, complexities and challenges facing universities she said.

“The need has never been greater for HELM to skill all levels of university leadership and management. I call them survival skills and survival strategies – and insight into this ever-shifting terrain. HELM’s mission is to explore and create relevant and cutting-edge solutions that build organisational and individual capacity needs in universities.”

The overarching objective, she said, is to ensure that the higher education system is “endowed with leaders and managers able to drive the institution toward a transformed future in this challenging environment.”

Dr Socikwa said that the context of unrelenting instability and uncertainty raised several questions for higher education leaders – but also several opportunities. Reiterating the questions of leadership for sustainability and development raised earlier, Dr Socikwa added another: What frameworks do we have for introspection? I wonder.

“These questions offer great and multiple opportunities not only for reflection but for change, and a more responsive system.”

The need to collaborate

“Collaboration is needed now more than ever. None of us can do it on our own. The more and sooner leaders acknowledge that, the better for all of us. This summit will provide a compass and a guide for engaging with multiple views and perspectives.

“How do I consider my own thinking in these issues – what might I need to reconsider? How can I, as a leader, collaborate with government, civil society, other stakeholders, and communities and build a better education system for my country? What should this system look like?

“Perhaps we can begin a creative journey towards new solutions and possibilities for global and South African higher education,” Dr Socikwa concluded.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.