SA minister and Unisa clash over v-c

October 12, 2001

A bitter clash has erupted between South Africa's biggest distance university and the education minister - over the appointment of a new vice-chancellor ahead of a merger with two other institutions.

The merger is part of the government's national plan for higher education.

The spat between the University of South Africa (Unisa) and education minister Kader Asmal was fought out in the press during the process of appointing Barney Pityana, the high-profile head of the Human Rights Commission, as vice-chancellor. He takes up the post in January.

The government wanted the leadership issue put on hold until a vice-chancellor was appointed to head a merged institution, while the university wanted to avoid a leadership vacuum going into a merger process.

Joining Pretoria-based Unisa, which has 170,000 students and Technikon SA (60,000 students) with the distance arm of Vista University (8,000 students), was one of two mergers announced in the plan earlier this year. The other involves ML Sultan and Natal technikons in Durban.

Institutional trauma and battles over autonomy in the face of government "orders" to merge could ensue.

Spokeswoman Doreen Gough said that Unisa had been experiencing "some uncertainty, but this is always the case during leadership change".

"Now that Dr Pityana has been selected, Unisa is settling down and it is business as usual. We want to stress that vice-chancellors are on contracts, they come and go.

"We have strong senior managers who ensure change at the top does not interfere with running the institution."

In Unisa's case, Professor Asmal wanted the contract of former vice-chancellor Antony Melck extended. That did not happen, but Professor Melck stayed on until the end of last month while a selection process got under way.

The minister then wrote to Unisa's council urging it to offer a new leader a short contract, since the merged institution would need to seek a new head within two or so years.

He acted similarly with ML Sultan when it was seeking a rector: it responded by appointing Daniel Ncayiyana on a limited contract with duties that included guiding the merger process.

But Unisa's council chair, McCaps Motimele, went ahead with selection and appointment. and argued that Unisa needed a strong leader during a complex and time-consuming merger, and that a man of Dr Pityana's calibre could not be expected to accept a short contract.

Mr Motimele told the Business Day newspaper that he had been angry to hear that Professor Asmal had expressed his concerns to Dr Pityana during the selection process. The minister should not interfere in a legitimate process, he said, and added: "He has muddied the water."

Mr Motimele said that were Dr Pityana to be paid off before the end of his contract, the amount would be a "Sunday school picnic" compared with what would be lost to low enrolments and staff resignations if a strong leader was not appointed.

Professor Asmal hit back and said that Unisa should not have engaged the issue through the press.

One thing was certain, he added in a letter to Business Day : as soon as the Unisa merger is finalised, a new vice-chancellor will be appointed.

"Once this has been achieved we intend to have a higher education distance institution free of venality, corruption and self-indulgence."

A working group investigating mergers across the sector will report to Professor Asmal at the end of this year.

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