“You are not alone,” academic leaders learned at last week’s HELM event in Pretoria

Published On: 15 August 2019|

They had come from all four cardinal points of South Africa: the north, south, east and west — and also the centre. Each individual brought with them what they thought was a unique set of institutional and personal challenges. By the end of the introductory session the attendees had realised that their peers faced similar challenges, just from different contexts.

This was a group of 30 comprising heads of schools or departments and academic or programme leaders who were brought under one roof for a leadership development intervention.  The two-day event, titled Foundations of Leadership/Management Programme, was taking place under the auspices of the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme of Universities South Africa. It was hosted in Hatfield, Pretoria.

The leadership and management intervention proved overdue to many of the participants. The main facilitators were Dr Oliver Seale (third from right in the seated row) and Professor Patrick FitzGerald (fourth from right, seated).  

“We are short-staffed,” one attendee stated when asked to mention the most pressing challenges they were grappling with. “Due to funding challenges our institution cannot attract permanent staff. We therefore rely heavily on part-time lecturers.” Another said their institution did not have all systems in place and that made administration a challenge. While the next candidate said he was struggling to achieve a fine balance between teaching and research and especially organising or attending conferences, another wished she could get her staff to pursue their doctorates. Yet another peer was personally struggling with transitioning from an academic to a managerial position. All of this was part of an ice breaker and introduction to the objectives of this leadership development event.

“Take heart. You are not alone,” was the short response from Dr Oliver Seale, Director of HELM, who would go on to lead discussions on the first topic of the day. He said the higher education context and the challenges of leading universities today were at the heart of what the HELM Programme was seeking to address. “Complexity and change are the two constants that you – being at the helm of it all — will inevitably be confronted with. The big question is: are you an academic leader, manager, or both?” Thus, the ice breaker had eased the attendees into the first topic of Day One: Leading a South African university today – context, challenges and capacity.

During these two days participants were exposed to four other topics, namely:

  • An overview of funding and budgeting in Universities — presented by Professor Patrick FitzGerald, Executive Director: Special Projects at Sol Plaatje University in the Northern Cape.
  • Integrated Quality Assurance Framework (IQAF) of the Council on Higher Education (CHE) – presented by Professor Monie Naidoo, Project Manager for the IQAF project at the CHE;
  • Policy and legislative environment and transformation imperatives in South Africa’s universities — presented by Ms Thandi Lewin, Chief Director for National Post-school Education and Training Planning Coordination, in the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET);
  • Integrated models for building leading-edge management – presented by Professor Patrick FitzGerald.

Most topics entailed the presenter’s input, an open discussion and a group exercise. Participants were also given a case study in managing people and change in a university, to which they devoted a whole session of analysis, discussions and reflection on Day Two. 

The workshop was delivered through facilitation, open discussions and group exercises.

As shown in the accounts below, the participants have given glowing feedback on this leadership development event.


HELM has filled some of my knowledge gaps – Dr Ndlovu


Dr Matshediso Ndlovu, Academic Leader and Lecturer in Masters in Business Administration and Postgraduate Studies in Business Management at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), says HELM has filled some of the knowledge gaps she had felt for a long time since joining academia. Having joined UKZN four years ago after serving in various capacities in the corporate sector, Dr Ndlovu said she had been thrown into the deep end on arrival at UKZN, with no induction whatsoever. “People assume that having previously worked in a managerial capacity should enable you to swim in your new role.”

She also enjoyed the CHE presentation which explained a whole new world regarding the accreditation of new programmes. “I arrived at the tail-end of the review of the MBA programme at UKZN. There were lots of questions I needed to ask. Professor Naidoo answered some of those.”

Dr Ndlovu says she sees the information shared within the HELM programme being hugely useful to other senior leaders at her institution, “specifically Council members.

They would immensely benefit from this programme that explains the higher education context.  Each sector is different and HELM addresses the specifics of leading in higher education.”


The information enabled me to reflect on my own managerial practice – Dr Combrinck

For Dr Martin Combrinck, Head of Department, Senior FET Phase in the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Faculty of Education on Wellington Campus, the biggest benefit came in the new information he obtained on different management approaches and styles and the matrix the facilitators used for self-evaluation. “It was good to reflect and get a sense of my own management and leadership practice, and to share with other colleagues. There is always room for improvement of what one does.”


Dr Combrinck, for whom this was also the first HELM exposure, said anyone in middle management would benefit from this experience.


The solutions to some of my institutional challenges reside in me – Mr Ramphoma

Mr Sefako Ramphoma, who has been the Head of Marketing and Government Management at the Bloemfontein-based Central University of Technology (CUT) for six years, says it was eye-opening to him to realise that the solutions to some of the challenges he was struggling with, actually reside in him – especially if he networks with peers from other institutions. “I learnt a lot from how others resolved similar issues within their environments.” He was particularly happy to learn of UKZN’s research incentive strategies.


“I want to encourage my university Senate to consider a different approach to incentivising researchers. Currently, CUT pays 30% of the research grant directly into the leading researcher’s pocket. We should be able to maintain research output without academic staff sacrificing teaching time for research, driven by these incentives. The institution takes 50% and allocates the rest to travel to conferences.”


Collegiality and teamwork is the only way to cope – Dr Masalesa  

Dr Metse Juliet Masalesa has been a Programme Leader at the University of Mpumalanga’s School of Early Childhood Development located at Siyabuswa for two years.

As a Programme Leader, Dr Masalesa represents the Faculty on eight committees, namely the University Senate; Teaching & Learning Committee of Senate; Research Ethics Committee of Senate; the Research Committee of Senate; the Faculty Board Committee; the School of Education Examination Committee; the Siyabuswa Campus Management committee; Siyabuswa Operations Management Committee. In addition, she teaches four classes: Teaching Methodology and Practicum from 2nd to 3rd year students, Teaching Studies to 3rd year students and Leadership and Management to 4th year students. Her work is therefore hugely demanding and stressful.

She says even though she had no management experience in higher education prior to taking up this position she managed to cope with the workload allocated to her. She personally found the PAMA case study on people and change management in a university — that was dissected at last week’s workshop, “quite eye opening. It gave me ideas on things I should be able to do in supporting my new Dean.” The new Dean of the Siyabuswa Campus only took up the reins from 1 August 2019. “Team work and collegiality between us are the only way to manage the complexity of our environment.”


HELM is a MUST for individuals earmarked to succeed others in senior positions

Prof William Daniels, Head of the School of Physiology at the University of the Witwatersrand, said he found the course so informative and empowering that he was happy to have brought along a potential successor to his position. “The programme gives us insights into national structures and their workings. Importantly it exposed me to the lingo, the jargon of Higher Education and therefore broadened my vocabulary of most commonly used words in the sector. It further sensitises us to the type of management leaders our institutions need at this moment in time and therefore helps gauging oneself upon reflection.”

He said even though he had heard mention of acronyms such as nGAP before, he had never really paid attention to them.“Even if the information is there on our website, if the name means nothing why would I go out of my way to read about it?” However,after a few programme names were discussed last week, he took interest and was now in a position to familiarise himself with more.

On a personal level, he felt that last week’s intervention was critical for his own self-development into an effective management leader. “Many heads of schools or departments are appointed based on their discipline specific expertise, and not necessarily their financial abilities. I particularly welcomed the guidance provided with respect to budgets, and in particular the various factors that influence the budgeting process. Creating proper understanding of how an academic entity fits into the broad societal roles and responsibilities of higher education institutions, is essential for the proper management and functioning of any university wishing to reach its vision. That is why I feel that anyone being groomed to occupy a senior position needs to go through this course.”

Prior to WITS, Professor Daniels was Dean and Head of School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences at UKZN for four years. The HELM intervention was therefore long overdue.


A welcome intervention all round – other attendees affirm

Participants largely welcomed the insightful and informal approach.

As the workshop concluded, a few attendees volunteered impromptu feedback during the closing session. A WITS participant said “thank you for creating an opportunity for us to discover ourselves. I enjoyed the lovely and informal approach.” His UKZN counterpart said the intervention “has extended my domain of ignorance. Now I know what I don’t know.” From the University of Pretoria, one head of department said “Notwithstanding all the negativity going around, for me, programmes like these and people like you make me believe that there is still hope in SA that is worth staying for.” Echoing that sentiment, another UKZN head of school added that “a lot of people believe that with a PhD, one can pack up and leave any day. But I know that South Africa needs me. If we try and allow ourselves we can contribute a lot of good to our country.”

In summing up, an attendee from the University of Venda said “most of us attend lots of workshops… Facilitators typically go through the motions, but in you [HELM facilitators], I saw a genuine passion for what you are doing. Thank you very much.”


More on HELM

Last week’s event, at which 11 institutions enrolled their staff, was the seventh this year to be held on Foundations of Leadership / Management  Programme, that is targeted at heads of schools/ departments; deputy vice-chancellors, deans and executive leaders.  It was the fourth intervention of this nature to be hosted in Gauteng for 2019.  Of the four equivalents being hosted in Cape Town, the last of the HELM Foundations of Leadership — Part One for the year will be held in East London.

From September to end of October, four sessions of the HELM Foundations of Leadership — Part Two will be offered in Cape Town and Gauteng.  

The HELM Programme, launched in the days of HESA as far back as 2002, underwent major restructuring and overhaul from 2015 to 2017. The Programme is being funded from the DHET’s University Capacity Development Programme (UCDP).

In its restructured state, the Programme has, alongside the Foundations of Leadership course, also executed numerous other capacity building interventions. Examples are the Student Development Workshop for Deans and Directors of Student Affairs; an Entrepreneurial Education Workshop for DVCs and senior managers and seminars on Research Integrity, Data Analytics and Design Thinking. In the pipeline for later this year is a Women’s Leadership Course, Development of Deans course as well as a postgraduate diploma and a masters in higher education leadership and management.