Dysfunctional leadership at the University of Swaziland: a symptom of a failing state
Over the past weeks there have been numerous reports about the conflict between students and the administration at the University of Swaziland (UNISWA). This conflict stems from the so-called semisterisation or academic restructuring designed from the ivory tower and imposed on students. When students expressed concerns about these changes, the university authority responded, as it always has done, with threats, intimidation and violence. Regrettably, these hostile tactics have arrested development at the university.
In December 2006, the administration closed down the university after a student protest against the contentious academic structure. When the university reopened on January 2007, the administration failed to provide leadership and resolve the impasse. Instead, it insisted on implementing the restructuring program through threats, intimidation and violent tactics. Reminiscent of the township siege during the apartheid reign of terror in South Africa, the administration called in armed paramilitary police units to occupy university grounds. Members of the academic staff were threatened with dismissal from their jobs when they protested against the presence of armed paramilitary units.
Such behaviour by a university administration is abhorrent. Resorting to the barrel of a gun and threats rather than appealing to intellectual reasoning reflects a serious failure of leadership. It clearly demonstrates the dysfunction in this bureaucracy and its extreme irresponsibility. The way in which the administration has handled this situation has done serious harm to the reputation of the university as an institution responsible for producing the country's intellectual resources. If the people at the helm of the institution are incapable of providing role models, how does the university hope to achieve its mission?
It is obvious that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the restructuring process and that these changes have not been thought through by the university administration. The current conflict suggests that the administration does not have an effective plan to manage the restructuring process, but instead relies heavily on bullying tactics. There are strong indications that the administration did not endeavour to effectively communicate and negotiate the reasons for the structuring process and its implementation with students. For example, did the administration consider other means of achieving its goals? A staged implementation programme allowing a smooth transition from the current to the new structure would have avoided the conflict. Under this approach, the restructuring process could have been introduced to first year academic programmes allowing students in current programmes to continue uninterrupted. A well-thought through restructuring process would have an inbuilt sunset clause. In this case it would mean that schools across the university will continue to offer the old programme to current students and the new programme to a fresh intake. The old programme would then be phased out after the last cohort of current students had graduated.
We wonder if the administration has a plan to evaluate the impact of the changes on teaching, learning and academic outcomes. If the changes are implanted along the dual academic structuring process, it would require the development of a compatible evaluation programme with clearly established performance indicators. We would suggest a two-staged evaluation process - internal evaluation and external evaluation. The internal evaluation will assess the effectiveness of the changes on different areas of scholarship and will require a high level of leadership capable of responding to periodic evaluation outcomes. Evaluation should be conducted at the end of each semester, focusing mainly on student and academic staff assessment of teaching and learning under the new programme. One would assume that under the new programme, the university and different schools will develop new graduate attributes. The external evaluation should therefore, as a principle, measure the benefits of the programme to society after its first "birthday". It should cover graduate and industry evaluation. For example, to what extent has the new academic programme improved employment opportunities for graduates and how has it contributed to better outcomes in various industries and public service? That is, are graduates of this programme more or less equipped to offer the human resources the country needs for future development?
As an organisation committed to good governance, democracy, service delivery and effective leadership, we call upon the university authority to reconsider its approach to the administration of this very important institution. PUDEMO supports calls from student and academic staff bodies for the withdrawal of armed paramilitary units from university grounds. Whilst we welcome the suspension of the implementation of the restructuring process pending the court outcome, we remain concerned about the failure of the university administration and the ministry of education to deal with the situation. This is a shambled job characteristic of bad management. Bad managers are incapable of managing conflicts without resorting to heavy-handed tactics. A functioning leadership would think carefully about the implications of restructuring processes and it would endeavour to discuss and negotiate aspects of these processes with all stakeholders. Conflicts are inevitable in processes of change and they can be constructive or destructive depending on the way in which they are managed.
While the university's behaviour is indubitably appalling, it is unfortunately little more than the latest visible lesion in the diseased body of Swaziland's administration. The university's heavy-handed approach reveals the poverty of its leadership and it is utterly consistent with the way business is usually conducted at the highest levels of authority in Swaziland. Unfortunately, the royal family has entrenched a culture of dictatorship in which peaceful debate is responded to with state violence against citizens. The national administration has a well-established record of incompetence and aggression which has brought Swaziland into the realms of failing statehood. Year by year, we see severe crises in the core social institutions of the country. The administration of law and order, of health care and of education is never far from collapse in Swaziland and lurches from crisis to crisis. The ongoing marginal functioning of these institutions and the recurrent crises are due to poor leadership and the dictatorial way of doing business in Swaziland.
The university has, regrettably, become the latest visible symptom of this political malaise, but it has always aped and aided the monarchy's dictatorial practices. From the days of the notorious Liqoqo regime in the early 1980s to the current period, the university has had no visionary leadership independent of the ruling royal family's political influence. Over the years, the administration has established a strong McCarthyist culture determined to purge the state's "enemies" from the university. From the early 1980s, generations of university students have opposed the authoritarian royal family rule and called for the introduction of a democratic system of governance. Consequently, the administration and the government see students as a hostile constituency. In many ways, this has contributed to the failure of leadership at the university to respond effectively to genuine concerns of students.
In our view, the way in which the university is managed has rendered the institution dysfunctional. This is an old fashioned style of higher education management and has generated disharmony between the student body and the administration. In the 21st century, universities around the world have pensioned off the authoritarian ivory tower management style and crafted a new identity as student-centred institutions. Serving the interests of the student population is a primary goal of 21st century universities. Swaziland University is profoundly outdated and this compromises the international standing of its educational programmes and devalues the qualifications of its students. If students are to be fit to take their place as intellectuals and society leaders, the university will have to teach them something beyond bully tactics and intimidation. Why should students bother to attend a university which has nothing to offer beyond bullying – this kind of knowledge will not help them to influence society in a positive way although it might of course prepare them well for a high-ranking government post under the current regime. Students might well ask themselves whether an institution which acts as a dictatorship and uses paramilitary forces to silence peaceful debate is really a university at all. It is a failing institution in a failing state and has little to offer students who wish to make a difference in Swaziland and beyond. Thus, there is an urgent need for far-sweeping changes in this deeply dysfunctional culture at the University of Swaziland and other Swazi institutions.
Dr. Jabulane Matsebula
Australia, Asia and the South Pacific Region