Unisa shortlists two candidates for the vice-chancellor job

Unisa has shortlisted two academics to take over from  the outgoing vice-chancellor. 

The long-distance institution started its search for the person to replace Professor Mandla Makhanya in February. 

Makhanya, who has been at the helm since 2011, was meant to finish his term at the end of this year and go into retirement. But, in an internal email to the university community last week Unisa’s council said it decided during its meeting in September that he would stay on until April “for purposes of proper handover to the incoming principal and vice-chancellor”. 

The council’s selection committee held interviews on Wednesday and shortlisted Professor Puleng LenkaBula and Professor Sandile Songca, according to the email. 

The email said after a “rigorous interview process” it recommended Songca and LenkaBula to go to the next phase of the process, when the executive committees of the institutional forum and senate consider the two names and report back to council with their preferred candidate. 

“Council will consider the recommendations by the selection committee and the advice proffered by the executive committees of the institutional forum and senate when making a final determination of the new principal and vice- chancellor,” said the chairperson of Unisa’s council, Sakhi Simelani. 

LenkaBula is currently the vice-rector for institutional change, student affairs, and community engagement at the University of Free State, a position she has held since 2018. Before moving to the Free State she was the dean of students at the University of  Witwatersrand. LenkaBula is no stranger to Unisa. She has worked at the institution as an associate professor of ethics, as dean of students and in Makhanya’s office as a director and adviser. 

If LenkaBula makes the cut, she will become the fifth woman vice-chancellor in the country. 

In August the M&G reported that at a webinar hosted by Higher Education Resource Services (Hers-SA), an organisation dedicated to advancement and leadership development in the higher education sector, and Universities South Africa (USAf), it emerged that since 2015 there have been 20 vacancies for vice-chancellors and that only four women filled those positions. 

Speaking at the webinar chair of the Transformation Managers Forum at USAf, George Mvalo said this picture should not be normalised and that it did not represent the demographics of the country or of the higher education sector. 

Mvalo said there were 12 women deputy vice-chancellors, out of about 30 positions. He said it was troubling that men have filled all vice-chancellor vacancies that were left by women over the past five years. 

Songca is the deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), a position he has held for just over a year. Before that he held the same position at the University of Zululand. He has been in various positions at Walter Sisulu University and at the University of Limpopo. 

Perhaps one of the pressing issues the new vice-chancellor will have to grapple with is what Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande termed “mission-drift” by the university. 

He said this in a statement in July where he announced that he had appointed a ministerial task team to conduct an independent review of Unisa. Nzimande said since the merger with Technikon SA and  the distance education component of Vista University it appeared that there had not been sufficient attention paid to the underlying drivers of institutional coherence and sustainability. 

The merger took place in 2004, when several mergers in the higher education sector took place. 

“Given the size of Unisa, not only in South Africa, but on the entire African continent — having 407 759 students in 2020 and growing — it is clearly too big to fail as too many people depend on its success,” said the minister. 

Unisa was becoming more of a full-time institution and this was never a plan supported by the state, according to Nzimande. 

“The issue of ‘mission drift’ has massive implications for the financial sustainability and future of Unisa. It also has materially significant implications for government for both subsidy and student financial aid support — as we have seen at the start of the 2020 academic year, when segments of the student community made demands for near full-time equivalent NSFAS [National Student Financial Aid Scheme]  support from government. Similarly, mission drift will impose major pressures on infrastructure, teaching staff and a host of other concerns.”

Nzimande also raised concerns about the quality of programmes offered by the institution, the high student failure rate, the de-accreditation of some academic programmes and instability in senior management. The task team, which is headed by Vincent Maphai, started its work in July. Its members include Professor John Volmink, who served as the acting vice-chancellor at Cape Peninsula University and is the chairperson of the Umalusi Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training, as well as Nonkululeko Gobode, who recently resigned as a non-executive director of the Clicks board.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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