The newly-appointed chief executive of South Africa’s Council on Higher Education, Ahmed Essop, will tackle organisational turmoil that has been undermining the work of the statutory policy advisory body when he takes up the post in May.
Essop succeeds Cheryl de la Rey, who left the council last year after becoming the University of Pretoria’s first black and first female vice-chancellor. Former vice-chancellor and education consultant, Rolf Stumpf, has been acting chief executive in the interim.
Essop said he intended to bring “organisational stability at the leadership and management levels”, which had been absent for some time. This, he added, would ensure that the council continued to play a central role in policy debates.
The council has been struggling to execute its mandate, which is primarily to provide guidance to the government on policy matters.
In particular, a shortage of staff and a lack of administrative capacity, coupled with changes at the top leadership level, has meant the council has been slow off the mark to probe critical matters such as the possible need for a four-year first degree and the effectiveness of law degrees.
The council, which also conducts institutional audits as part of its quality assurance functions, has come under fire from universities because, despite providing verbal feedback after conducting a quality audit of a university, it takes a long time to produce the draft report and the final report – by which time the university has already started to address issues identified.
In tackling these problems, Essop has the benefit of extensive experience as chief director in the former Department of Education from 1997 to 2005, where he was tasked with planning and management. This placed him at the heart of higher education policymaking and the execution thereof.
Prior to joining the department he was based at the influential Centre for Education Policy Development, where he was involved in the development of education policy during South Africa’s transition to democracy. Essop was a consultant in the higher education sector after he left the department.
Looking ahead at his new position, he said the establishment of a separate Ministry of Higher Education and Training – encompassing further education and skills training – provides an opportunity to rethink how post-school education and training can be provided in an integrated manner.
“This is critical to addressing the twin issues of access and equity and, in particular, enhancing the quality of provision at all levels of the post-school system,” he said.
Essop was educated at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom and Stanford University in the United States.