The internal rot that is now crippling the University of South Africa (Unisa) was already researched in 2019 by a seasoned and respected doctor, formerly of this university.
The extensive study on performance management, or rather the lack of it, and solutions on how to tackle it were sent to the vice-chancellor and rector of Unisa at the time.
However, the calls for change fell on deaf ears.
Performance management is one of the elements that has damaged service delivery at this university and forced it to the lowest level ever.
Richard Harding, a retired doctor in public administration, says his study showed exactly how extensive the problem is among administrative staff. Today it shows exactly how it contributed to the decline of the university.
Harding was employed at Unisa for 40 years and a year after his retirement is still doing research for the university and regularly consults on methods to effectively implement performance management.
His research at the time revealed, among other things, that manipulation, victimization and a lack of consequence management were rampant among the university’s administrative staff.
First, it became clear that the university’s integrated performance management system and its implementation were demoralizing to staff, far too complicated and changing too frequently to make any significant difference.
The performance management system is supposed to support Unisa’s aspiration to become a high performance university. The policy states that performance management will primarily be used to improve, monitor and evaluate the ability of the management and directors to achieve the strategic, functional and operational objectives of Unisa.
“However, due to a lack of skills and the required knowledge, managers are not committed to effective performance management and are reluctant to carry out in-depth or proper performance management reviews,” writes Harding in his research.
The involvement of trade unions has further complicated the situation with managers constantly being arrested when union members complain or challenge the manager’s behaviour, specifically during performance reviews.
“This causes fear and mistrust among managers and they avoid getting involved in conflict situations, or simply ignore the poor performance of employees (at the expense of the university’s operations).”
Prof. Themba Mosia’s damning report on the problems at Unisa, which was made public recently, confirmed Harding’s research.
He indicated that performance at management levels “can have a serious negative effect on the overall functioning and performance of Unisa” and moreover lead to reputational damage.
Mosia, vice-rector of the University of Pretoria (UP), was appointed as independent assessor. Among other things, he found that there is a serious fault with Unisa’s operating processes and the handling of staff in particular.
“The investigation revealed the instability at the institution, characterized by a culture of fear, intimidation and bullying, cases of maladministration, financial irregularities, inadequate human resources, a poor information and communication system, poor student services , academic malpractice, disclosure of confidential records, and questionable management and board decisions,” Mosia wrote in the report.
According to Harding, performance management was unfortunately not applied correctly. Because unions manipulate Unisa’s staff to produce the minimum outputs, the university’s standards are only lowered further.
“Standards are therefore lowered, performance marks are awarded to staff – whether they perform or not – to avoid conflict and this ultimately has a negative effect on those who do perform and the operations of the university.”
Because there is no effective consequence management, for fear of victimisation, Unisa’s standards are only further eroded.
However, Harding proposed a number of interventions at the time, but these were never followed. He suspects, among other things, that it is because the ignorant and incompetent at Unisa did not want to be exposed by addressing it.
“The thing is, these problems at Unisa can be rectified if people with the necessary experience and commitment are appointed,” he says.
“It is then of the utmost importance to apply effective consequence management so that those who do not do their part can be worked out.”
During his time at the university, Harding himself strove to ensure that the consequence management that was needed was applied.
“This whole situation is extremely frustrating for us who have been at the university for years and helped develop everything. The university’s integrity as a higher education institution is severely damaged by this.”