Crises engulf leaders

July 31, 1998

A crisis of leadership is bedevilling South Africa's 36 universities and technikons, according to a report by a United States marketing expert.

There is so little stability that it is "virtually impossible" to evaluate their leaders, Peter Buchanan, president of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, found.

His report paints a gloomy picture of a higher education system characterised by chaos, mediocrity and a desperate shortage of skilled staff and money.

Mr Buchanan was commissioned by Unitech, an association of higher education marketing and communications staff, to assess South African institutions. After visiting all the country's campuses, Mr Buchanan concluded that categorising training needs was pointless because training was needed in all areas in nearly every institution.

Of the 36 institutions, nine did not have both a permanent vice-chancellor and a marketing director. Five had no director, three had acting directors, one's vice-chancellor had resigned and three had acting heads. At only six institutions had the vice-chancellor and a director worked together for more than three years, and at many they had been together for less than 18 months. Only a "handful" of vice-chancellors rated their directors highly, and visa-versa.

Mr Buchanan moves on to describe "gut wrenching" changes to tertiary education. Previously institutions received about 80 per cent of their funding from the state; today the figure is 50 per cent, with funding levels likely to decline further as student enrolments expand.

Mr Buchanan proposes that labour laws be revised to enable institutions to get rid of incompetent people and that staff training in all areas should be developed. To encourage stable leadership, he advises that heads should serve unlimited terms, subject to performance.

The question is whether vice-chancellors would want to stay on. The impact of tertiary transformation, Mr Buchanan said, has taken an "enormous toll" on them. Nobody "can fully appreciate the pressure cooker in which these men and women operate".

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