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‘Organisational Development’ Could Transform Universities



Since 1994, the higher education sector in South Africa has been undergoing changes and challenges. Some of those changes and challenges are due to notions of internationalisation and national calls for transformation. The latter is largely influenced by socio-political and economic developments in the country, while the former is due to globalisation.

Higher education in South Africa has made some changes in response to internationalisation but has been slow to respond to national calls for transformation.

These calls may include but are not limited to subjects such as institutional cultures, racial tensions, culturally savvy teaching and learning methods, outsourcing of support functions, the development of a new generation of academics, racially skewed graduation rates and high student fees due to shrinking government subsidies, alongside increasing calls for staff salary increases.

Massive destructive student protests for change within universities highlight the stalemate situation we have reached. I am of the view that, in this current impasse, ‘organisational development’ or OD theory and practice could lead this process, reduce the political rhetoric and help universities to embrace and ‘do’ transformation.

Little is known about OD’s role in higher education institutions, especially in South Africa. With growing uncertainty in the sector generally, researchers and teachers of OD have begun to consider the role of OD to help institutions of higher learning embrace the forces of internal and external change affecting them and position themselves as official learning organisations. This is even more important in South Africa today.

‘Organisational development’

Officially recognised as a method and area of study in the United States in the early 1940s, ‘organisational development’ has preoccupied itself with corporations or economic organisations. ‘Organisational development’ has offered the behavioural science tools to enable organisations to prepare for change and embark on transformation. OD has not, however, thus far critically looked at how it could contribute to development and change in higher education institutions.

OD employs a scientific approach to change and is premised on humanistic values to change. It emphasises the need for change to be planned and encourages collaboration among all those who will be affected by the change. This is further justified by OD’s emphasis on ‘action research’ to encourage direct participation of those affected in planning and taking action as well as measuring results.

It is performance-oriented: OD aims to make organisations improve their functioning and improve the human conditions of those who work for them. It employs a general systems approach to change, viewing an organisation as a constant reciprocal relationship between individuals, groups, the work environment and the broader society within which an organisation operates. The latter is particularly important for South Africa’s higher education system.

OD in higher education

OD has a remarkable reputation as a catalyst for change in corporations. Institutions of higher learning teach graduate students and conduct research in OD, but have not proactively used some of the OD approaches and practices in their own institutions.

In the early 2000s, we started to see the slow emergence of the drive to employ OD-based change in higher education, mainly in America and Europe. Dr Richard Torraco at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and his colleagues have presented interesting case studies where OD methods have been employed in different universities in the US and the UK. In these universities, OD change efforts have been implemented for institutional improvement.

Many factors – for instance, the need to improve the effectiveness of faculty and administration staff due to globalisation, increased demand for higher education, industry-university partnerships and institutional culture change – are pushing institutions to not only teach and do research about organisational change, but to change themselves. The same is true for South African institutions of higher learning, especially in post-apartheid South Africa.

Calls for transformation in South Africa

South Africa’s higher education institutions date back to the colonial era. This history is important especially for debates on their institutional cultures. In the apartheid period, institutions were used to further expand the idea of separate development. The period 1959-60, among other things, witnessed South African higher education institutions becoming entrenched along ethnic and tribal lines. This was a serious change from the colonial era.

The subsequent transition to a democratic society came with demands for institutions of higher learning to change.

Amid all these changes, there is no documented account of the involvement of OD-trained practitioners assisting universities to embrace the process of change. Suffice to say, politicians have been at the forefront of the calls for change, including the establishment of commissions of enquiry to achieve this transformation. The same is true of the dominant voices of political analysts and sociologists: few if any are OD practitioners and researchers.

The term ‘transformation’ within higher education is widely debated.

In 2015, the Department of Higher Education and Training together with Universities South Africa hosted a Higher Education Summit. The summit provided a definition and explanation of transformation as “a comprehensive, deep-rooted and ongoing social process seeking to achieve a fundamental reconstitution and development of our universities to reflect and promote the vision of a democratic society”.

This entails a simultaneous process of eradicating all forms of unfair discrimination and creating a higher education sector that gives full expression to the talents of all South Africans, particularly the marginalised and poor.

The summit report further suggests that transformation of higher education must actively “remove any institutional, social, material and intellectual barriers in the way of creating a more equal, inclusive and socially just higher education system”.

The summit identified the following factors as central to transformation in this sector: management and leadership, governance, student and staff environment, institutional cultures, teaching and learning, research and knowledge, institutional equity and the political economy of higher education. I am convinced that OD can help greatly here.

What role can OD play in aiding transformation?

First of all, transformation in OD is viewed as change that is permanent. This means that when the university transforms it does not revert to its old self – the change is a collective acknowledgement that the current state needs to be altered, permanently.

Sadly, this very point has met with resistance. A section of the South African population is content with the current state of affairs and sees no need for transformation – but government and recently many stakeholders (including students) maintain that there is a need. This is exactly where OD interventions are necessary.

OD could help higher education institutions to do transformation in an informed manner rather than the current haphazard, seemingly directionless and uncoordinated institutional initiatives that are being taken. OD emphasises the need to diagnose institutional problems and identify areas to improve and areas of strength to build upon. Solutions are sought and implemented by all involved parties.

This may include giving the current cohort of vice-chancellors new leadership skills. This is even more important following the explosive and revealing book written by the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, Professor Jonathan Jansen.

Jansen claims that the majority of vice-chancellors in South Africa are academicians and are therefore not trained for the changing and demanding vice-chancellorship positions of today. Giving them the skills they need must be informed by thorough action research principles. This is another OD ‘line of work’.

OD can also help improve the capacity of faculty and administrative staff to deal with the changing higher education landscape in terms of improving fundraising initiatives to deal with the global challenge of shrinking government subsidies to universities and boosting human resource management departments that play a proactive role in staff development and staff cultural adjustment.

Even more importantly, as we have seen in other countries like the US, there is government pressure to create new programmes and educational tracks to meet the demands of the new economy, rising competition among institutions, a need for curriculum reform, rising tuition costs, national and local policy changes and increasing employee dissatisfaction.

Again, OD can also help in understanding resistance to change and offer valuable theoretical rationale for that resistance, as well as suggesting strategies for dealing with resistance to change. Students’ demands and protests also remain serious threats to the survival of the public university in South Africa.

The need for institutional cultures that reflect the political and socio-economic changes in the broader South African society also pose very serious dangers to the autonomy and independence of institutions of higher learning. This is another speciality of OD.

To conclude, there is a need in South Africa to refrain from the political and sociological rhetoric that has bedevilled the transformation debate of higher education institutions and created a stalemate situation. We need to aggressively employ OD change initiatives to make South African universities function and perform better and cater for all the changes and challenges they face in the future.

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