Training to promote thought leadership in universities

A four-year leadership training programme aimed at vice-chancellors, principals and deans of 54 African universities has proved popular among university leaders and a third phase is planned, according to its organisers.

Participants of the Capacity Strengthening Programme for Leadership in African Universities, funded by the Mastercard Foundation and implemented jointly by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR) and the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), said the training had helped them to reflect more deeply on their characteristics and effectiveness as leaders.

“African universities need to recognise that there is no replacement for thought leadership as innovation and advancement at universities is dependent on the quality of its leadership,” said Dr. Anthony Egeru, RUFORUM’s acting deputy executive secretary for programme development and implementation.

Quality leadership

According to Egeru, for Africa to have quality universities, there must be quality leadership. “Thus a deliberate training approach and immersion programmes in African universities should be started, and those that exist need to be further strengthened at the university level,” Egeru told University World News.

Egeru said for a long time universities had been viewed as places for developing great ideas. “However, they have not been able to earn credibility as places for turning ideas into actionable solutions, which would help them create avenues for influencing societies, government, and the global environment.”

Based on the feedback from a survey received in June, university leaders believe there is also a need to train university council members as this could help improve relationships between the universities’ governing councils and management. “They need to come together and make joint decisions to improve service delivery in both the academic and administrative fields,” Egeru said.

In the survey, leaders reported that the training had enabled them to better rally stakeholders to share their vision and had helped to improve standards in teaching and examination administration, to motivate research leaders and to enhance leadership capacity at lower levels.

Universities as complex entities

The leadership initiative had its roots in a meeting of university vice-chancellors held in Cape Town, South Africa, four years ago. A number of issues facing university leadership were identified in search of a pathway to achieving the goals of the First African Higher Education Summit held in 2015 in Senegal, requiring African higher education institutions to commit themselves to excellence in teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public service and the provision of solutions to development challenges and opportunities.

“Leadership in our universities needs to respond to and be proactive about both internal and complex issues and partnerships and the external drives including problems such as climate change, mass migrations, and the rapidly changing technologies and cultures,” said Professor Tade Aina, PASGR executive director and a mastermind of the initiative. “We started this initiative based on the need for strategic management of complex organisations … seeing universities as complex systems in fast-changing times,” said Aina.

According to Dr. Beatrice Muganda, director of higher education at PASGR, issues identified by vice-chancellors at the Cape Town meeting included resource mobilisation, management of spiralling enrolments, aging professoriates, the challenge of forming and sustaining partnerships, and managing conflict. “External interference, as well as tribal and racial politics in the management of universities, ranked high on the list of bottlenecks,” she said.

Programme design

RUFORUM Executive Secretary Professor Adipala Ekwamu said the programme was designed to enable university leaders to “champion transformation of African universities into effective research and training institutions with strong frameworks and mechanisms for implementation of the vision and mission of their universities”.

Ekwamu said the basis of the leadership initiative was to enable people to “examine their own potential; their strengths and weaknesses and how they can be strengthened”.

According to RUFORUM and PASGR, the Mastercard-funded training has been critical in providing an avenue for dialogue and feedback from principals, deans, and vice-chancellors.

“The deans acknowledge that leading from the middle is quite challenging and their voices are often not heard in the right places or at the right time,” says Muganda. “This often leads to a time lag in translating ideas into actions.”

Mainstreaming leadership training

Ekwamu said there is also a need for leadership training for mid-level leaders such as directors and heads of departments, and to this end, RUFORUM had built leadership training into its Ph.D. and post-doctoral training so as to “mainstream” leadership capacity building.

Egeru, who is also the programme manager for training and community development says that RUFORUM is linking with other partners strategically to deliver the training onwards to more university leaders and managers.

Additionally, the RUFORUM board has approved the establishment of the African Agricultural Research and Policy Academy that will in part anchor leadership training for the Africa region besides the policy analysis for the region.

“We are also building a cadre of early-career scientists through the leadership training programme as part of grooming the next generation of university managers,” said Egeru.

The third phase of training will take place from 2-6 December this year at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, and more vice-chancellors and deans will be invited to reflect upon and learn from their leadership experiences, according to Muganda.

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