31 March 2022

While the University of Mpumalanga (UMP) may still be one of the youngsters on the South African education block at eight years of age, the past two years have brought with it a maturity which is based firmly on resilience.

Under the guidance of Vice-Chancellor (VC), Professor Thoko Mayekiso, UMP has become a beacon of hope for many students looking to create a legacy for themselves in the country. But it does not stop there for this young upstart of a university that likes challenging the norm. Significant investment into the research and innovation portfolio of the university has produced some incredible results, while the arrival of Justice Mandisa Maya as Chancellor has been a major boon.

Armed with the slogan: Creating Opportunities, Prof Mayekiso summed it up perfectly when she said: “The University of Mpumalanga, as a comprehensive institution, understands that its academic project must combine both the creation and transfer of knowledge and skills, and the development of students as independent and critical thinkers with a passion for knowledge and its application.”

UMPProf Mayekiso and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Teaching and Learning Prof Shirley Sommers during the 2021 graduation ceremony.

A new chapter for UMP

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was named the first chancellor in 2016, but his reign came to an end in 2021. Up stepped Justice Mandisa Maya to fill his considerable shoes from 1 July 2021, after a lengthy process which demanded that the right candidate be installed at the helm.

“In the search for a new Chancellor, UMP set very high and stringent criteria. The candidate, for example, had to be a person of public honour, implying therefore that such a person should be of national stature and prestige; whose integrity is beyond question. Over and above that, the potential candidate should have an outstanding record in his or her profession and service to his or her community. Additional considerations should be the ability to enhance the stature of the university. The gravitas to encourage wide benefaction of the institution also mattered. Furthermore, candidates had to have a good understanding of, and interest in public higher education.

“Justice Mandisa Maya met these criteria, and much more. She is the president of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA). She comes with an illustrious record in the judicial system and is a visionary. She has an excellent track record of women empowerment. The fact that she is female is a bonus, to serve as an inspiration, and to give female staff and students hope when they see someone like themselves hold such a key position at the university.”

Prof Mayekiso admits that she is looking forward to working together with the chancellor on a number of key projects to advance the vision of the university. One of these is to continue to push the boundaries of the transformation agenda.

“We need to act in a meaningful manner to ensure we become a society that works for everyone. Transformation is key in higher education. Society looks up to higher education for solutions to some of life’s stubborn challenges, and, therefore, it is key to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk when it comes to higher education.

“Gender equity and equality require pursuing without stopping. Patriarchy and stereotypical tendencies must be eradicated. A world characterised by epistemological justice is worth working towards. My assessment is that strides are being made towards transformation in the higher education sector, but at present, for example, there are only six female vice-chancellors out of a total of 26 universities,” the avid reader and family woman adds.

UMPProf Mayekiso during the signing of the MoU with German-based DHBW-Loerrach.

Relevance is key

The growth of the university can be seen in the number of students applying each year. This is testament to the hard work of Prof Mayekiso and her team in ensuring that they remain relevant and an institution of choice for those looking to continue their studies post high school.

“Our student numbers are growing tremendously year on year. At inception in 2014, the university enrolled 169 students in three programmes and in 2021, we enrolled 5 369 students in 32 qualifications. In 2022, we are planning to enrol 6 375 students in 45 qualifications. A very encouraging development is the enrolment of the first doctoral students in three doctoral programmes in 2022.

The student pool is also not confined to Mpumalanga or even South Africa for that matter. UMP is determined to continue its growth trajectory and that includes the admission of students from neighbouring countries and beyond. This is down to strong partnerships being formed with tertiary institutions in Africa and other parts of the world.

Prof Mayekiso explains: “UMP has established partnerships with 20 universities globally in 13 countries. UMP has recently signed a partnership with the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University Loerrach in Germany. Within the African continent, we have partnerships with the following universities: University of Eswatini; Universidado Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique; Makerere Business School; Millennium University of Malawi; Muni University in Uganda; and the University of Nairobi in Kenya; while more partnerships are being explored.

UMPStaff  recognition, development and retention is a priority for the Vice-Chancellor.  

Stellar UMP staff

To maintain the growth of the university, it is vital that the staff shaping the students are of the highest calibre. Prof Mayekiso is lucky in the sense that she has just that at her disposal. This has always been a key facet for the university, as without the best imparting their knowledge, the attraction of enrolling at the university would dwindle.

“The university has eight NRF rated researchers with two C1, three C2, two C3, and one Y2 categories. I’m a C3 rated researcher which is a great achievement considering the number of years in senior management. I received my C3 rating for the period 2013-2018 and was re- rated for the period 2019-2023.

“At UMP, staff capacity development is always prioritised and this includes research seminars presented by distinguished national and international scientists, National Research Foundation (NRF) information sessions, training on research ethics, methods, methodology, and data analyses, and the annual research writing retreats. The university currently boasts three postdoctoral fellows sponsored by UMP and three sponsored by external organisations such as NRF and the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB).

To ensure that UMP retains staff and gives them the best opportunities, Prof Mayekiso encourages all employees to look at ways of upskilling themselves. For some, this has come in the shape of completing their doctorates. Having a highly educated and skilled staff base has always been a priority, and the results are bearing fruit for all involved.

“The percentage of staff with doctoral degrees is 49%, which reflects the university’s efforts to support staff to complete PhDs and the recruitment of new staff with PhDs. Our target is to have 50% of our staff with doctoral degrees by 2022,” she says.

“Our researchers are also encouraged through the Annual Research Excellence Awards such as the Faculty Researcher of the Year Award. In this category, recognition is given to a staff member who has made the most significant contribution towards research in their faculty during the reporting year." 

UMPThe Dean of Students, Dr Paul Maminza with the VC and SRC President Bathini Madinawe during the inauguration of the 2022 Student Leadership.

Leading from the front

The reality of the last two years is that being a leader has come with many challenges. No one was prepared for what was about to be thrown at us as a global community, so it is only fair that those in positions of power were given the benefit of the doubt.

However, for Prof Mayekiso, her leadership qualities are what saw her over the line. While she has been forced into learning unprecedented lessons, her core abilities were invaluable.

“Strategic thinking is crucial in the arsenal of a leader. Paying attention to the transformation agenda is also of importance. The ability to be discerning and realising that none of us can be smarter than all of us, as Ken Blanchard suggests, is key. Welding teams and delegating, and holding those delegated accountable, is very important.

“Today’s institutions are complex and demanding, therefore, the ability to attain the following bodes well for leadership: self-awareness, self-mastery, self-understanding, empathy, determination, managing social relations, and paying attention to detail. Over and above these, authenticity also comes in handy on the leadership journey,” Prof Mayekiso, who is an avid sports fan, shares.

Prof Mayekiso admits that her leadership style is derived from her disciplinary background, which is psychology. She draws upon insights from her understanding of human behaviour in order to cope with her daily interactions with stakeholders. 

“One has to constantly ask oneself, ‘What is my purpose? What am I doing here?’ As a leader, you have to be in touch with your personal values and beliefs. Leaders should embody their true selves, drawing on their values, beliefs, principles, and ethics. People skills are crucial in the armamentarium of effective leaders.”

UMPThe University of Mpumalanga thrives on partnerships: VC signing another one with Ehlanzeni District Municipality. 

What comes next?

“The overarching goal over the next three years is both consolidation and growth in all the three missions of the institution, namely: teaching and learning, research, and engagement. The university has experienced substantial growth in student numbers, staff complement, academic programmes, research outputs, academic staff with PhDs, and infrastructure. There is a need to continue to embed quality in the academic project. As a result, the need to ensure quality promotion and enhancement of all our activities is at the core of our being as the UMP.”

The university currently offers 48 programmes in three faculties: Education, Agriculture and Natural Sciences, and Economics, Development, and Business Sciences.

“In the next three years, the plan is to add new programmes at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels and to establish the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and the School of Law. By 2024, the plan is to offer approximately 70 qualifications to over 8 000 students.

“I look forward to the graduation of the first cohort of University of Mpumalanga doctoral graduates in 2024. We will continue to put in place sound governance, management systems, and processes to ensure functional governance and management structures, thereby ensuring the sustainability of the institution,” she concludes.

@ Story was first published in Leadership Magazine February Issue 2022. Follow the link for full story: https://indd.adobe.com/view/96085690-5178-41d0-ab5d-1ae88a3cbda7

Pictures by ChrisplPhoto.