/ 26 March 2010

Baptism of fire awaits Essop at the Council on Higher Education

The newly appointed chief executive of the Council on Higher Education will tackle the organisational turmoil that has undermined the work of the policy advisory body.

Ahmed Essop takes office in May, succeeding Cheryl de la Rey, who left the council last year after becoming the University of Pretoria’s first black and first female vice-chancellor.

Former vice-chancellor and education consultant Rolf Stumpf has been acting chief executive in the interim.

Essop told Higher Learning he intends to bring ‘organisational stability at the leadership and management levels, which has been absent in the past few years”. This, he said, will ensure that the council continues to play a central role in policy debates.

The council has been struggling to execute its mandate, which is primarily to provide guidance to the minister of higher education and training on policy matters.

In particular, a shortage of staff and a lack of administrative capacity, coupled with the changes at the top leadership level, has meant that the council has been slow off the mark to probe critical matters such as the need for a four-year-long first degree and the effectiveness of the LLB degree in South Africa.

The council, which also conducts institutional audits as part of its quality assurance functions, has come under fire from universities because, despite providing verbal feedback after conducting a quality audit of a university, it takes a long time to produce the draft report and the final report, by which time it has already started to address issues, which have been identified.

In tackling these problems Essop has the benefit of his extensive experience as a chief director in the former department of education from 1997 to 2005 where he was tasked with planning and management. This placed him at the heart of higher education policymaking and the execution thereof.

And, prior to joining the education department, he was based at the influential Centre for Education Policy Development, where he was involved in the development of education policy during South Africa’s transition to democracy.

Essop was a consultant in the higher education sector after he left the department. Looking ahead at his new position, he said the establishment of a separate ministry of higher education and training — encompassing further education and skills training — provides an opportunity to rethink how post-school education and training can be provided in an integrated manner.

‘This is critical to addressing the twin issues of access and equity and, in particular, enhancing the quality of provision at all levels of the post-school system,” he said.

Essop was educated at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom and the University of Stanford in the United States.