Original Research

Conflict of interest: The case of a non-decision-making committee at a South African public higher education institution

Jacobus S. Wessels, Elmarie Sadler
The Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa | Vol 17, No 1 | a878 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/td.v17i1.878 | © 2021 Jacobus S. Wessels, Elmarie Sadler | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 14 May 2020 | Published: 28 June 2021

About the author(s)

Jacobus S. Wessels, Department of Public Administration and Management, College of Economic and Management Sciences, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa
Elmarie Sadler, Department of Financial Governance, College of Accounting Sciences, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa


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Abstract

The avoidance of a conflict of interest within private and public institutions is closely associated with good corporate governance. This study departed from the question of whether a conflict of interest is possible within a non-decision-making institutional committee. For this purpose, a high-level non-decision-making committee within a South African public higher education institution was selected as a case study. This article reports on an exploratory qualitative study consisting of qualitative content analysis of the constituting and operational documents of this committee, as well as on a study of the perceptions and lived experiences of the selected committee. It was found that the selected committee was established to be a high-level consultative body for the executive management committee of the university on decisions of strategic operational nature. This committee does not have any decision-making duties. Conflict of interest is perceived by committee members in terms of either the explicit or the hidden agenda metaphor. According to the explicit agenda metaphor, a conflict of interest within a non-decision-making committee is not possible, whilst the hidden agenda metaphor holds that a conflict of interest is the reality of members’ lived experiences. This article provides a comparison of the two perspectives according to three defining attributes of the concept and shows a need for a logical and principled definition of the concept ‘conflict of interest’ within the context of higher education and the public sector at large.

Keywords

conflict of interest; higher education management; corporate decision-making; consultative forum; internal competition; hidden agenda; explicit agenda; governance; higher education institutions; public higher education institutions.

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