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      Institutional Forums : A Weak Cog in University Cooperative Governance?



            Chapter 3 of the Constitution of South Africa makes provision for cooperative system of governance between the three tiers of government: national, provincial and local. In higher education this provision finds expression through the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997 and institutional statutes. Cooperative governance of public universities pivots around key institutional actors as part of democratisation of institutional governance. Cooperative governance is an important twentieth-century governance innovation for South African public universities. In juxtaposing university governance and public accountability, democratisation has been identified as a crucial ingredient in broadening the processes of decision making, promoting greater participation and ensuring inclusion of black “bodies” in university governance. One of the cooperative governance structures of South African public universities is the institutional forum (IF). Born in the crucible of student activism in the 1980s, IFs have had a mixture of success and failures since their first implementation in 1998. They were conceived as agents for social justice and democratisation in the driving of transformation of public universities. This paper examines extant literature on the evolution, functions and challenges of the IF in driving institutional transformation and concludes by suggesting further areas for research.

            Main article text


            It was during the mid-1980s to early 1990s that the racialised and unequal South African higher education system came under increasing pressure to transform, both in terms of access for the majority of the South African student and staff populations, and its governance arrangements. Transformation in this context was envisaged as a deliberate effort to deracialise university participation, inter alia, in teaching, research, governance, broadening participation in decision-making processes and institutional cultures. The growing disenchantment with the apartheid system was expressed through overt and covert resistance to the apartheid government policy premised on racial discrimination and preservation of white privilege, which were based on notions of white supremacy over the oppressed Black majority. At the centre of the calls for transformation within public university environment were students and progressive academics who played an instrumental role in jettisoning apartheid higher education configuration, for a democratic and inclusive university system.

            The apartheid system had placed racial supremacy, racial discrimination and white privilege at the centre of university operations and resourcing. Bunting concludes thus: “under apartheid, higher education in South Africa was skewed in ways designed to entrench power and privilege of the ruling white minority. Higher education institutions established in the early part of the century (Fort Hare, UCT, Wits) were incorporated into a system which was subsequently shaped, enlarged and fragmented with a view to serving the goals and strategies of successive apartheid governments” (Bunting, 2006, p. 52). The race-based system spawned the binary of historically white universities and historically black universities. Although there was growing resistance to the imposition of apartheid policies of racial discrimination, for Soudien (2010), “the essential architecture of the previous [apartheid] order was still in place in the 1990s when the new government came into power. Features of this order were a hierarchy of racialised institutions and the severe marginalisation of black students” (p. 5) This period gave rise to the emergence of organic structures called the broad transformation forum (Adams, 2006; Cloete and Kulati, 2003; DoE, 2008; Johnson, 2000; Moja and Hayward, 2000; Morrow, 1998). Fundamentally, the broad transformation forum, as the name implies, was constituted of an array of university roles/actors united in the belief that the university arrangements as then constituted were exclusionary, discriminatory and anti-democratic in their decision making at both management and Council levels.

            Two years after the dawn of democracy, the first democratically elected President of the Republic of South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela established the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE) which was premised on the need for transformation of a fragmented and race-based higher education system. The terms of reference of the National Commission on Higher Education were gazetted on 3 February 1995:

            to advise the Minister of Education on what constitutes higher education; the immediate and long-term national goals of the system of higher education, the institutional types required by the system, their particular missions, their respective inter-relationships and their relationships with the state, professional bodies, private sector, NGOs, etc, be it national and/or provincial; the structures required by the Minister of Education or by any other relevant authority to provide ongoing policy advice on higher education; the structures required to administer higher education; and, the steps required to establish the required advisory and administrative structures.

            At the core of the NCHE was the democratisation of university governance structures, which was to find expression through legislative and statutory arrangements. For example, the broad transformation forum, which was an “extra statutory” organ, morphed into the institutional forum, which was incorporated in the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997 and was to be “domesticated” in the respective university statutes. For Kulati, the Institutional Forums “are meant to act as ‘shock absorbers’ to the transformation process by providing the arena for issues pertaining to the broad transformation agenda of the institution to be debated and discussed” (Kulati, 2000). This governance innovation (DoE, 2008 (a); Harper et al., 2002; Griffin, 2018) was thus aimed at ensuring the entrenchment of the deliberative democratic tradition in university life which hitherto remained elusive.

            At a macro level, there were structures equally seized with social transformation. The pre-1994 period was a flurry of activity as the Mass Democratic Movement, led by the banned African National Congress (ANC), grappled with development of policy frameworks in anticipation of majority rule. Sehoole indicates that “the idea of the [National] Commission was first mooted within the education sector of the mass democratic movement as policy proposals for the post-apartheid South Africa were discussed” (Sehoole, 2001). Someone who was central to these higher education policy discussions and was later to become the Minister of Higher Education, the former chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Education, traces the formation of the NCHE thus:

            the Commission was first mooted in what was initially referred to as the Yellow Book (the ANC’s Policy Document on Education) as a means of saying, “there is so much in the restructuring of higher education that is needed that we will actually need a very thorough investigation into the state of higher education. This was important because whilst it was known, in broad terms, what the state of higher education was, under apartheid, finer details were needed, also the idea of the Commission was informed by the fact that once you start the process of restructuring, you have to consult as widely as possible. (Nzimande, February 2000, cited in Sehoole, 2001, p. 3))

            This study is a literature-based paper concerning South African articles that have a special focus on the institutional forum. It intends to further explore the extent to which the institutional forum is perceived to be a weak cog in university cooperative governance. The following section explores the distinction between corporate and cooperative governance. This paper is divided into five sections. After this introduction, the second section looks at the history of the institutional forum. This is followed by the role of the institutional forum and the associated definition of transformation. There is a discussion in section four, followed by the conclusion. So, what gave rise to the institutional forums?

            History of Institutional Forums

            Governance in South African higher education

            At the core of institutional governance is the need for orderly organisation of an institution’s affairs through supervision of the execution, monitoring and accountability of its strategic intent. The strategic intent finds expression through the institution’s mission, vision and value system. On the term governance, Fielden (2008, p. 2) states that: “governance is used to describe all those structures, processes and activities that are involved in the planning and direction of the institutions and people working in tertiary education”.

            Johnson (2000) describes the emergence of new governance structures as “an important historical development as it represents a shift from the Apartheid regime’s Extension of the University Education Act of 1959 … which provided for individual higher education institutions to be racially segregated”.

            Institutional role players like the Student Representative Councils and progressive academics organised under the banner of the Union of Democratic Staff Associations (UDUSA) began to demand a radical rethink and democratisation of the governance structures and inclusion of marginalised voices in decision making of universities. According to Johnson (2000), “a further feature of the old apartheid governance structures was the lack of representativity of the communities within institutions”. Whilst there existed statutory advisory bodies, these bodies faced a crisis of legitimacy at two levels: “the bodies which existed such as the Advisory Committee for Universities and Technikons (AUT), Committee of University Principals (CUP) and the Committee for Technikon Principals (CTP) were statutory advisory bodies and operated at a national level but were undemocratic and unrepresentative of the higher education community” (Johnson, 2010, p. 73). At this stage it is important to briefly sketch the context which gave rise to the emergence of the broad transformation forums, the precursor to the institutional forums.

            The emergence of broad transformation forums (BTF)

            The context for increasing calls for democratisation of public universities was against the background of the unbanning of political organisations including the African National Congress (ANC), Azanian Peoples Organisation (AZAPO), Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). The ANC was instrumental in the formation of the mass democratic movement. For Johnson, “the mass democratic movements were actively preparing the African National Congress (ANC) for government during the pre-election period of 1990–1994” (Johnson, 2010, p. 74).

            According to Johnson (2010, p. 75),

            Badat (1994) traces the emergence of Broad Transformation Forums within higher education at an institutional level. He argues that they initially emerged with the focal aim of challenging any unilateral decision-making on the part of the state within the negotiation period. He refers to the National Education and Training Forum (NETF) which was established in March 1993 as a forum that aimed to develop a common approach to the process of transformation within education.

            In this paper, a distinction is made between two governance models, corporate and cooperative governance.

            Corporate governance

            Corporate governance within its core structure is concerned with the organisational functionality as well as the distribution of power among its various stakeholders (Johnson, Scholes & Whittington, 1997). In the South African context corporate governance is predominantly found within the corporate and private sector. Globally the corporate sector is driven by the profit motive and the ever present need to maximise shareholder value. Thus, majority shareholders have influence in the investment decisions taken by the board and company operations and hold the executives accountable for the execution of company strategy.

            The advent of globalisation has witnessed the “creep” of corporate practices in higher education in the form of practices including the commodification of knowledge, the new public management practice of audit culture, performance management, outsourcing of so-called non-core services, such as cleaning, catering, gardening and security, students being viewed as clients.

            For researchers, “governance is about power and authority within an organisation, the structures and relationships by means of which the power and authority are used” (Fourie, 2009). Fourie further points out that institutional governance “relates to the power and influence of the various stakeholders like academic and administrative staff, students and the community” (Fourie, 2009).

            The NCHE took this further when it called for “a radical shift in the distribution of power within institutions” (NCHE, 1996). Thus, cooperative governance was viewed as the appropriate mechanism for achieving the envisaged radical shift in the distribution of power within public universities.

            Cooperative governance

            Chapter 3 of the South African Constitution makes provision for a cooperative system of governance between the three spheres of government, namely, national, provincial and local government. Cooperative governance in higher education finds expression through the 1997 Higher Education Act and institutional statutes.

            In its configuration, the South African higher education system resembles the British higher education system (Hall et al., 2002). The salient difference between the British governance system is the insertion of the cooperative governance model in the South African university governance architecture. Cooperative governance is a creature of both the higher education legislation and institutional statutes. Cooperative governance differs markedly from corporate governance in two substantive respects. One of the distinguishing features of cooperative governance is that it is underpinned by principles of social justice, equity and democratisation (NCHE, 1996). Secondly, cooperative governance is premised on a multi-stakeholder body based on deepening transformation in higher education through consensus than diktat. This, arguably, is at the core of deliberative democracy. Griffin describes cooperative governance as “a formalised model of shared governance within public universities in South Africa” (Griffin, 2018, p.3,).

            In its contextualisation of cooperative governance in a post-apartheid environment the National Commission on Higher Education described what it called a South African variant of state supervision: “co-operative governance entails autonomous civil society constituencies working co-operatively with an assertive government” towards a common goal (NCHE, 1996). At institutional level cooperative governance “requires the acknowledgement of competing and complementing interest, as well as the interdependence and common goals of different role players” (NCHE, 1996).

            An NCHE injunction contained in one of the principles of cooperative governance in higher education states that “higher education must become part of a co-operative and coordinated state in which participating constituencies and actors maintain their identities, remain autonomous, and have a variety of powers and functions ranging from decision makingto implementation and monitoring” (NCHE, 1996, p. 180). This view of a diversity of stakeholders with competing, and at times conflicting, interests that have to be managed is supported by Elzinga who argues that

            governance involves interaction with a diversity of stakeholders and trying to harmonize their (often) conflicting interests. It is a process in which the stronger partners tend to be the winners. With this, patterns of bottom-up and top-down communication converge and modes of conflict resolution take on new forms. (Elzinga, 2012, p. 423)

            Arguably, the institutional forum was constituted to serve as an arbiter of conflicting interests, thus potentially rendering external interference in university operations a distant reality.

            The Green Paper on Higher Education Transformation outlines two key assumptions (for government and constituencies) underpinning cooperative governance: “cooperative governance assumes a proactive, guiding and constructive role for government” and the “active participation by civil society constituencies which acknowledge their different interests, maintain separate identities, and recognise their mutual interdependence and responsibilities for attaining a common goal” (DoE, 1996:28).

            Intersection of positional and personal power

            Undoubtedly, cooperative governance in a transforming post-1994 South African higher education system can be said to have been met with mixed results. On the one hand, cooperative governance has been generally welcomed as central to the management and democratisation of universities. On the other hand, there has been resistance to changing power relationships among internal stakeholders. Since the institutional forum has a direct advisory role to Council, there seems to be some ambivalence to it among some Vice Chancellors and Senior Managers. Internal stakeholders like the Student Representative Council, labour and ordinary support and academic representatives appear to embrace the institutional forum as a platform for influencing decision making and the transformative trajectory of the university.

            Some Vice-Chancellors view this as chipping away their responsibilities and authority to manage the university. These university administrators seem to view the need to account to the institutional forum to be at odds with their responsibility as Chief Executive Officers accountable to Council. The erstwhile Department of Education-commissioned GLab study also observed that “the Vice Chancellors (the majority interviewed) do not see a role for the Institutional Forum in terms of managing the institution or managing stakeholders issues—all felt bilateral forums were more appropriate” (DoE, 2008a). The DoE study further makes a key observation about the influence and power of Vice Chancellors: “the attitude of individuals at this level of positional and personal power must influence the Councils and hence the ability of the Forums to make a difference” (DoE, 2008a). This ambivalent attitude can potentially play a role in the weakening of the role of the institutional forum and by implication also chips away at the institutional forum’s vested responsibility as derived from the Higher Education Act and university statutes.

            The institutional forum is constituted of varied experience, expertise, rank, institutional memory/knowledge and power dynamics. These power dynamics manifest through what Cooper (2015) calls the “structural identities” of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability and positionality. The urge to exercise and/or exert positional power and/or authority during institutional forum meetings, which are usually chaired by someone of a junior rank and authority, is ever present. This tension between university leadership and the institutional forum perhaps emanates ironically from a process in which university management forms part of consensus-based decision making at the institutional forum: the same management is expected to execute the consensual decision once it has been endorsed by the university Council. So executive management wittingly and/or unwittingly participate in making decisions based on consensus and eventually executing such agreed decisions which they might not necessarily view to be in their best interest as university managers.

            Due to the complex nature of universities, besides change being the only constant, the competing interests of a range of role players mean tensions are inevitable: “this in turn, is to recognise that there will be tensions, and that these must be balanced with commitment” (Hall et al., 2002), based on the “acceptance of joint responsibility for the future of higher education in South Africa” (NCHE, 1996).

            Role of Institutional Forums in Transformation

            Transformation defined

            To paraphrase the UNESCO (1998) World Declaration on Higher Education, transformation, like quality assurance, justice, equality and diversity, is a multi-dimensional concept which should embrace all university dimensions including teaching, curriculum learning, research, community engagement, academic and administrative environment, committee structures (academic and administrative), governance system and all associated university operations.

            Both the Education White Paper 3: A Programme for HE Transformation and the Higher Education Act of 1997 emphasise the importance of a mechanism designed to meet the national and institutional strategic policy imperatives of access (equitable access and outcomes), equity and redress, democratisation, development, quality, efficiency and effectiveness, academic freedom and public accountability.

            Perhaps due to the nuanced and differentiated prevailing institutional contexts, there is currently neither a shared understanding nor a common definition of transformation in South African public universities. Keet and Swartz (2015, p. 5) believe the concept of transformation in the South African context “may well be one of the most prolific empty signifiers that ‘absorbs rather than emits meaning’”.

            For Badat, (2009) conceptualisation of transformation within a higher education context

            “ ‘transformation’ usually has the intent of the dissolution of existing social relations and institutions, policies and practices, and their recreation and consolidation into something substantially new. These processes of dissolution and recreation may vary in pace, be uneven, and not uniformly result in a complete rapture or total displacement of old structures, institutions and practices” (Badat, 2009, p. 456).

            According to Mzangwa (2019, p. 9), “transformation in the South African context refers to the need to ensure that the barriers to access are completely removed so that the higher education system becomes more inclusive, achieving widening access, improved throughput rates and participatory outcomes”.

            The issues raised by both Badat (2009) and Mzangwa (2019) are indeed dimensions constitutive of transformation and strategic approaches, however, recognition of the ecology in which people find themselves on its own cannot be deemed as transformative. Also, reducing transformation to removal of barriers, important as this is, does not constitute the totality of the dimensions of transformation, such as, inter alia, curriculum transformation and decolonisation, visual redress, equitable staff development, transformative engagement (scholarship of engagement). No doubt the debate on higher education transformation and its challenges is far from over.

            Reflecting on the challenges of transformation in South African higher education demonstrates that “the nature of the transformation agenda and certain elements require ongoing critical debate” (Badat, 2010, p. 5).

            What these definitions accentuate is the multi-dimensional character of this fluid concept. Furthermore, these definitions underscore the fluidity of the notion of transformation. There is no doubt that a shared understanding of transformation still remains elusive.

            For this paper, transformation is conceived to be a systematic thoroughgoing process whose ultimate goal is the radical transformation of the three missions of a university, knowledge structures, disciplinary knowledges and social structure of the academy and its associated institutional cultures which perpetuate hierarchies of power, inequality, access to and exclusion from knowledge networks, resources and the stranglehold in the democratisation of knowledge systems, epistemologies which are the raison d’etre of the university.

            University Council, Senate and the institutional forum, are expected to govern, be accountable and advise respectively. The institutional forum must advise council on, inter alia, issues affecting the institution, including (i) the implementation of the HE Act and national policy on higher education, (ii) race and gender equity policies; (iii)the selection of candidates for senior management positions; (iv) codes of conduct, mediation and dispute resolution procedures; (v) fostering of an institutional culture which promotes tolerance and respect for fundamental human rights and creates an appropriate environment for teaching, research and learning, and (vi) perform such functions as determined by Council. Senate is accountable to Council for academic and research functions of the public higher education institution.

            Sadly, the minimum functions contained in the Higher Education Act (1997) appear to have at times been narrowly interpreted without any contextual adjustments to the principal objective of institutional transformation.

            According to a DoE-commissioned survey done by GLab, when it comes to the interpretation of their mandate as contained in the Higher Education Act (1997) “the majority of institutions surveyed have not moved beyond the provisions of the Act to describe the Institutional Forums ‘remit’” (DoE, 2008a, p. 7). This fact corresponds to an earlier study conducted by the NCHE which provided for specific functions of the institutional forum to include “identifying and agreeing on problem areas to be addressed, setting the change agenda, which should include issues of equity, monitoring and assessing change” (NCHE, 1996, p. 205).

            According to the National Commission on Higher Education, the institutional forum was envisaged to play “a crucial role in co-operative governance at the institution level” (NCHE, 1996). For Griffin (2018), the Higher Education Act (1997) provided for each university, through the facility of an institutional statute, to have its own discretion to further delineate more specific aspects of the institutional forum such as setting the change agenda, including race and equity plans, improving institutional culture as well as monitoring and assessing change.

            Measuring transformation: the transformation barometer

            Universities are complex longstanding social institutions that have existed before nation states. Originally established to serve the elite, predominantly male, universities have undergone changes from being ivory towers to being accessible institutions for the public good. In a study analysing the approach of South Africa’s public universities it was found that none of the universities used a narrow definition of transformation. A discussion paper on the concept of a transformation barometer—which has been developed as a self-regulating tool for the sector—anchors transformation on the following dimensions/themes and sub-themes: (a) institutional culture: governance and management, professionalisation of transformation work, social structure of the academy, social inclusion/exclusion/cohesion; (b) equity and redress: access and success, support and opportunity, diversity and inclusivity; (c) research: knowledge transformation, diversity and inclusion; (d) community engagement: socially just, diverse and inclusive community engagement, transformational leadership (e) teaching and learning: access and success, planning for inclusive enrolment, critical pedagogies, transformation and diversity competencies (Keet & Swartz, 2015).

            According Keet & Swartz, “transformative imperatives have to grapple with the idea of ‘what kind of universities’ we strive to establish: an extension of the European or North American ideal … or the evolution of universities fully embracing and drawing on their African existence and identities as currency in a wider cosmopolitanism and democratic internationalism” (Keet & Swartz, 2015).

            Hendricks (2018) identifies the problem of South African universities as being

            modelled after and essentially seek to replicate and align with those institutions of higher learning that emerged in the West, and therefore they have also cultivated their hierarchies, racial and gender power relations, epistemologies, and ethnocentric constructions of what constitutes knowledge, and in which bodies and geographies it is supposedly located and enunciated. (p. 17)

            Navigating institutional cultures can mean the differrence between success and curtailment of ambitions and success. Middle management are notorious for their gate-keeping role, thus thwarting the attainment of institutional transformation goals. To paraphrase Patricia Hill-Collins (2012, p. 38), university actors invariably should learn to be subversives when challenging power structures and working the cracks within the system, turning it on its head. But most importantly they need to learn to speak multiple languages of transformation convincingly.

            This also requires adeptness in navigating and shaping institutional cultures towards desired goals. It is submitted that in so doing university leaders are able to positively influence institutional culture as an effective function of cooperative governance. This suggests that institutional culture invariably serves as a function of governance. The emergence of the erstwhile broad transformation forums implicitly laid the foundation for an inclusive institutional culture which was based on deliberative democracy and participation within university governance, albeit as an “extra statutory” movement. It is now irrefutable that the institutional forums have become embedded in the governance culture of South Africa’s public universities.

            Since the split of the Department of Education in 2009 into two departments—the Department of Basic Education (focusing on Grades R-12) and Department of Higher Education and Training (focusing on post school education and training, inclusive of colleges and public and private universities)—the Minister of Higher Education and Training has convened two HE Transformation Summits, the first one in 2010 (which adopted in toto, the recommendations of the 2008 “Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions ”(DoE, 2008b) in Cape Town and the second one five years later in Durban. Of significance emanating from the 2015 Durban Statement, besides the fact that it marked the escalation of the “Fallist” movements throughout the country and its call for free and decolonial education and insourcing of outsourced workers, the HE Transformation Summit resolved that, in the immediate turn,

            (i) the mechanisms for holding institutions accountable for transformation goals should be strengthened. Transformation indicators should urgently be developed for the system to help steer transformation goals to support effective implementation of transformation imperatives.

            (ii) decisions should be made about the role, purpose and effectiveness of Institutional Forums in facilitating transformation in the context of the analysis of current governance models for their effectiveness in supporting transformation”. Furthermore,

            (iii) the ability of university governance and management structures to address transformation imperatives should be examined and where blockages exist, they should be addressed. (DHET, 2015, p. 3)

            There is no doubt that the institutional forum has had some notable achievements as far as issues of broad demographic transformation is concerned, particularly in senior appointments and implementation of higher education policy. However, if the Durban Statement is anything to go by, the institutional forums have over their short lifespan been beset with challenges. These challenges have at times cumulatively conspired to render the institutional forum less effective (Harper et al. 2002; Hall et al., 2002; DoE, 2008a; Griffin, 2018). In the following section based on literature and observations, some of the challenges facing the institutional forum since its enactment into the Higher Education Act in 1997 and into university statutes thereafter is captured at four levels: influence, recognition, outcomes and impact.


            There is no doubt that influence plays a role in universities, particularly when it comes to the complex matter of university governance. Role players ranging from students, academic staff, administrators, professional and support staff, unions, executive managers invariably would like to influence the decision-making processes in the university. At times there are competing interests which engender tension among stakeholders. These tensions can be quite pronounced when it comes to the multi-stakeholder nature of the composition of the institutional forum.

            In the main, the institutional forum has a vested interest in influencing the decision-making processes at Council—in which they have a legislative and statutory advisory role. Inevitably, tensions manifest between the transformative function of the institutional forum and demand for executive management accountability to the institutional forum. Secondly, tension exists between the institutional forum’s advisory role and Council in the weight of advice given to Council and how Council values such advice, i.e. whether Council takes or rejects the advice proffered by the institutional forum. Due to the transitory nature of the student constituency, compared to general staff, a tension also arises between the need for urgent deliberation and addressing of pressing student-related matters during the tenure of the current student leadership (to hopefully leverage another term in office) and the perception that other stakeholders particularly executive management do not accord the matter the urgency it deserves.

            It is submitted that the balancing act between the varied conflicting and competing interests, structural identities, power dynamics and inability to recognise their mutual interdependence and responsibilities for attaining a common goal of a transformed university at times bedevils cooperative governance.


            That the institutional forum forms part of the governance of South African public universities is an important milestone in the cooperative governance of the higher education system. Both the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997 and the Education White Paper 3: A Programme for HE Transformation makes explicit provision for the recognition of the institution forum. As a result, all 26 public universities have also made provision for the existence of institutional forums in their institutional statutes. However, recognition is necessary but not a sufficient condition for effective cooperative governance.

            On dominance and positionality within the operations of the institutional forum, DoE (2008a) observes that “certain categories of stakeholders tended to dominate the Institutional Forum”, this as a result “is not a level playing field, and it is not possible for representatives to engage as equals in this situation”. The Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions made an observation that

            accountability at management level is equally problematic. The vice chancellor is accountable for the implementation of the transformation agenda and, in turn, it is his or her responsibility to ensure that middle-level and other managers are held accountable for their role in the implementation process. (DoE, 2008b, p.114)

            Cloete characterised this to be “the tension between direction from the top and bottom-up participation/consultation” (Cloete, 2002, p. 277).

            The Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions makes the following observation about the marginalisation of the institutional forum:

            equally problematic is the marginalisation of structures of transformation, such as IFs. The fact that IFs have been relegated to being fringe players was not intended in the policy and legislative framework for higher education. It is clear that the role and function of the IFs needs to be revisited and strengthened. (DoE, 2008b, p. 114)


            In his book, Outcomes based evaluation, Robert Shalock defines outcomes as personal or organisational changes or benefits that follow as a result or consequence of some activity, intervention, or service. The institutional forum could be regarded as an organisational change or benefit that is a consequence of legislative and policy intervention introducing cooperative governance as a democratic enhancing process in South African public universities. The duality of outcomes of the institutional forum can be characterised as either positive or negative.

            One of the positive outcomes of the introduction of institutional forums is the placing of democratic values at the centre of university cooperative governance. Boland (2005) puts it succinctly as strengthening the values of political democracy within universities. Other scholars characterise the introduction of institutional forums as the ability of universities to introduce democratic ideals, practices, and values of participation, equity and social justice (Planas et al., 2013; Menon, 2005; Sultana, 2012).

            What could perhaps be viewed tas the negative outcome of the introduction of the institutional forum in the governance architecture of public universities is its engendering of ambivalence by influential actors, undermining its efficiency and effectiveness by starving it of much needed resources to fulfil its objectives and goals. This creates what Griffin (2018) refers to as “the perception of failure of deliberative democracy heralded in HE legislation” (p. 2).

            Despite the potentially powerful influence of the institutional forum in driving university transformation, at times it engenders negative perceptions among stakeholders. The DoE commissioned GLab study notes that the “common perception was that, as it is presently constituted, the Institutional Forum is a ‘toothless’ body” (DoE, 2008a, p. 8, Griffin, 2018, p. 16). A further perception is the generally slow pace of demographic transformation, marked by continued severe underrepresentation of black senior academic staff like professors and associate professors in an academy that continues to be dominated by white male professors (DoE, 2008b; Kessi et al., 2020. The intersection of race, gender and rank points to the role of gatekeeping in the academy where the culture seems to be used to make “black bodies out of place” (Kiguwa, 2015). There is no doubt that executive managers, faculty deans and heads of academic departments exert inordinate amount of authority and influence in the reproduction of the academy—what Taylor & Taylor refer to as the persistence of “systemic white racism […]” which reproduces “racialised structures of power and authority” (Taylor & Taylor, 2010, pp. 898–901).

            The Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions also called for the need to hold middle managers accountable for transformation. The report observed that “a recurring theme across institutions was the claim that middle managers were a key obstacle to transformation. In many institutions, it would appear that devolving authority to these lower levels of management[ … ] constitute one of the most frustrating challenges facing transformation” (DoE, 2008b, p. 114).


            Management and evaluation studies literature places premium on the need for regular impact evaluation to inform decision making about whether to continue (formative assessment) or to discontinue (summative assessment) a particular course of action or programme (Scriven, 1967). The impact or lack thereof of institutional forums has at times not been as envisaged by policy makers.

            When it comes to the impact of the institutional forum, the DoE commissioned GLab study came to a conclusion that “none of the institutions surveyed had evaluated the relevance or impact of the Forum” and, most telling, the study observed that “senior management generally felt that there were other more useful structures in the universities” (DoE, 2008a, p. 7).

            Unlike Councils and to a lesser extent Senate, very few institutional forums have constituted sub-committees tasked with transformation work in between IF quarterly meetings. When it comes to frequency of meetings “none of the Forums in the sample were meeting with any regularity” (DoE, 2008a, p. 7). Most tellingly, it would appear that, when it comes to setting clear measurable goals to be achieved and to measure progress and success, “very few of the Institutional Forums would be able to state that they had achieved their goals” (DoE, 2008a, p. 63).

            In certain contexts, at times, the institutional forums have to contend with a dice loaded against them. For example, the DoE study observes the issue-driven nature of the work of the institutional forums, particularly when it comes to the appointment of senior managers, like Vice Chancellors: “in most instances in the institutions in the sample, it appears that the Institutional Forum functionality increases when a number of specific criteria or variables that are critical to some of the local stakeholders come into play” (DoE, 2008a, p. 7).

            Silent in the literature is the tension that besets the constitution of the institutional forum and the ambivalent attitude of some university managers and Vice Chancellors towards this body. Also an important potential role that should be played by the institutional forum is in driving higher education transformation. The institutional forum needs to grapple with:

            the notion of transformation as a more complex metaphor for social and educational change is invoked in order to ensure that the equity challenges are addressed within a framework that values, for example, curriculum reform, changes in institutional culture, innovative scholarship, academic freedom, and public good engagement as much as it does diversity in all its forms. (Lange & Singh, 2010, p. 57).

            Indeed, the institutional forums need to shift the perception that they are only concerned with narrow demographic transformation, important as that is, to broad institutional transformation imperatives that equally put a spotlight on curriculum, teaching, assessment practices, knowledge production and spaces and affirming institutional cultures.

            The establishment of institutional forums “in university governance was expected to bring positive benefits to the tertiary sector” (Griffin, 2018, p. 2). What is clear is that the IF has brought about positive benefits to higher education; what may be in doubt is the sustainability of such benefits in the fgace of ongoing onslaught by vested interests.


            The extant literature on the genealogy, role and contingent factors and influences of the institutional forums point to the historic calls by key actors, including students and progressive academics, for the democratisation of decision making in South Africa’s institutions of higher education. In line with Chapter 3 of the Constitution on cooperative governance, universities have embedded cooperative governance through the Higher Education Act of 1997 and their institutional statutes.

            Towards the dawn of democracy, the broad transformation forums were a force to be reckoned with by recalcitrant university management in their strident calls for democratisation and inclusive participation in governance structures of South Africa’s then 36 public higher education institutions. The National Commission on Higher Education laid a solid foundation whose goals found expression in the foundational Education White Paper 3 and the Higher Education Act 101 of 1997.

            The institutional forums were quite vociferous in their demands for the massification of historically white institutions to be reflective of South Africa’s demographics; curriculum and epistemic transformation; equitable demographic representation for academic and support staff; inclusive participation in cooperative governance structures and associated capacity building; change in institutional cultures which were viewed as alienating and discriminatory to black bodies. Institutional forums were configured by the erstwhile Department of Education to be “structures of governance set up as part of the strategy to institute co-operative governance as a central principle in tertiary institutions” (Badsha, 2001). The Ministry of Education recognised the broad transformation forums “as vehicles for transforming institutions and advancing the rights and interests of those who had previously been marginalised” (Mazwi-Tanga, 2001).

            Noting the marginalisation of institutional forums as an unintended consequence of policy making and legislation, the Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions, made the following recommendations: “it is of critical importance that the role of the IFs be strengthened” (DoE, 2008b, p. 17). With regards to the manner Councils dealt with their institutional transformation responsibility, the Ministerial Committee came to this conclusion:

            the major conclusion to which the Committee came upon reviewing the efficacy of councils in providing leadership in higher education institutions is that several of them had failed to realise the full scope of their responsibilities in respect of transformation. The Committee frequently encountered passivity and dependence on management on the one hand, and a deference to alumni on the other. Both these impeded the urgency of the institution’s transformation agenda. (DoE, 2008b, p. 17)

            Policy makers played a pivotal role in laying the foundations for a radical shift from a disjointed race-based education system to a coordinated differentiated higher education system. Without the foundational legislative and policy frameworks it would be well-nigh impossible to shift the apartheid edifice on which the racialised and resource differentiated tertiary education system was built.

            Sehoole (2001) argues that

            the process of [policy] formulation saw a shift on the part of government from a hands-off and cautious approach in dealing with higher education policy issues in the immediate post 1994 period to a more aggressive approach leading to the adoption of the White paper and the promulgation of the Higher Education Act [101 of 1997].(p. 2)

            The first Minister of Education in democratic South Africa was quite emphatic and resolute on the need for transformation of the higher education system

            to reflect the changes that are taking place in our society and to strengthen the values and practices of our new democracy, is ,….not negotiable. The higher education system must be transformed to redress past inequalities, to serve our new social order, to meet pressing national needs and to respond to new realities and opportunities. (RSA, 1997, p. 3)

            Historically, students have played a pivotal role at critical moments in the political economy of education in general and university education in particular. The recent “Fallist” movements in South Africa, calling for decolonisation of university curriculum (epistemic struggle) and insourcing (meaning placing of subcontracted workers on “permanent employment with accompanying benefits” (Muswede, 2017, p. 208) of precarious workers (class struggle), were driven by students from predominantly historically white universities. Scholars and researchers have written extensively on the 2015/16 student protests (Albertus, 2019; Hendricks, 2018; Khan, 2017; Kessi et al., 2020; Vandeyar, 2019).

            During the “Fallist” movements of 2016, the students’ call for decolonisation of the curriculum was initially met with derision and indifference by some university leaders. This indifference perhaps was occasioned by the misplaced hope that the call would evaporate without garnering traction. The call for decolonialism led to the centring of an uncomfortable topic on the agenda of many a university senate, councils and national consciousness. This galvanised some academics who had long been agitating for university curriculum, pedagogy and disciplines to be decolonised.

            Kessi and colleagues observe that the “student led protest throughout South Africa, from 2015 as #RhodesMustFall into 2016 as #FeesMustFall focused attention on some of the [glaring] structural inequalities built into higher education systems” (Kessi et al., 2020, p. 272). Somehow, the exuberance and idealism of youth unsettled the status quo and “the state of inertia at many South African universities was jerked into action by these protest actions” Vandeyar, 2019.

            One of the most striking features of the 2015/16 student protests was their eschewing of the normative regulatory cooperative governance structures such as the Student Representative Councils. The student protests were reported to be “leaderless” and were intolerant of engaging with any of the external mainstream political parties, including members of the ruling party.

            In a paper describing the lack of transformation which has perpetuated institutional racism, Albertus (2019) aptly characterises the “Fallist” movement as a social justice movement. The university structures came under severe pressure from the student protests. Structures like the SRC, the institutional forum, not to mention Senate and Council, found their legitimacy to drive decolonialisation of the curriculum and transformation was severely tested. Albertus (2019) illustrates continued maintenance of white privilege and institutional racism in the hallowed halls of academia. For Albertus (2019) black bodies “feel silenced by institutional structures dominated by the white and privileged whose hubris knows no limitations” (p. 7).

            The apartheid dividend is quite palpable in the demographic profile of academic staff at South African universities. For Albertus, “under apartheid, white people were socialised to think of a university as an exclusively white arena” (ibid.). The apartheid dividend continues to pay off in real and direct ways when it comes to the profile of top occupational levels where “the institutional hierarchy of colonialism and apartheid has put white academics at the pinnacle and [black academics] at the bottom” (ibid.).


            We submit that the institutional forums still need to fulfil their original disruptive orientation to the status quo. They are arguably one of the few multi-stakeholder groups positioned to foster organisational transformation. The institutional forums could benefit from being organised as a community of practice to enhance their cumulative impact in driving organisational transformation. Perhaps it is a bit too soon to measure the effect of the Higher Education Amendment Act 2016 which is aimed at strengthening the role and functions of the institutional forums. The turbulences battering the institutional forums ironically are strengthening the rationale for the formation of these democratic structures in the first place.


            Cooperative governance is a unique innovation at South Africa’s public universities. This paper has attempted to indicate the novelty of the institutional forum as governance structure in South Africa’s post-apartheid higher education system. Its precursor, the broad transformation forum, was instrumental in the institutionalising of the institutional forum in the governance of South Africa’s public universities. Chapter 3 of the South African Constitution laid the foundation for the practical application of cooperative governance in various sectors of South African society, including public higher education institutions. Ironically, historically black universities (HBUs) that were established to maintain the status quo, like the University of the Western Cape, were at the forefront of the democratisation of decision making and broadening student access. It was at HBUs that students and progressive academics called for transformation. Extant literature on cooperative governance in public higher education institutions illustrate the emergence of institutional forums and their role in university transformation.

            This paper has surfaced the lack of a shared understanding of transformation in the literature and advanced a definition of transformation as a systematic thoroughgoing process whose ultimate goal is the radical transformation of the knowledge structures, disciplinary knowledge and social structure of the academy.

            Perhaps due to their “non-executive” leadership, as multi-stakeholder bodies usually chaired by non-executive stakeholders, the institutional forums seem to exist in tension between their advisory function to Council and exigencies to hold university management accountable for institutional transformation. Unlike other governance bodies in South Africa’s public universities, the institutional forum remains as one of the few structures that is ceaselessly required to justify its existence as a body to be reckoned with in driving the transformation agenda of South Africa’s public universities.


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            Author and article information

            International Journal of Critical Diversity Studies
            Pluto Journals
            31 March 2023
            : 5
            : 1
            : 41-59
            [1 ]Social Justice and Transformation, Vaal University of Technology
            © George Mvalo

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            Page count
            Pages: 19

            Social & Behavioral Sciences
            transformation,intersectionality,university governance,institutional forum,cooperative governance


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