Audit of qualifications a good thing

2009-02-19 00:00

Reports of a possible audit into the academic qualifications of staff at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the implementation of “measures to ensure greater vigilance” in the aftermath of revelations concerning the “negligent misrepresentation” by a senior academic at the institution of his academic qualifications, should be welcomed by the tax-paying public as key stakeholders in this public institution, as well as by all those who have a keen interest in the conditions of higher education in the country.

It is inconceivable that, for over 25 years, an irregularity concerning the academic qualifications of a staff member were not picked up, particularly in circumstances where the staff member concerned was promoted on two occasions and appointed to management positions on two occasions. Surely, the applications for promotion and for the senior appointments must have entailed scrutiny of the concerned individual’s academic qualifications, among other things? Was there a cover up?

When it emerged that I was the individual who had unearthed the irregularities concerning the senior academic’s qualifications, I was subjected to vicious personal attacks by some colleagues, with one suggesting — rather absurdly — that my own academic qualifications should also be investigated. I am not afraid to have my qualifications scrutinised.

Unlike some, I do not claim to have certain academic qualifications based on some belief. I have earned each of my academic qualifications from public institutions in Zambia, the United Kingdom, Australia and Finland. Entitlement to academic qualifications is usually evidenced by possession of an official certificate or academic record from the awarding institution and not merely by some personal belief that one has the qualifications.

For some time, some members of staff at the institution (including myself) have expressed disquiet concerning issues such as unequal access to opportunities for promotion and salary disparities. A glaring example of what is differential treatment in career advancement is the case of a colleague who was head-hunted by a government department to lead a major three-year national project. At the time he left UKZN, he was a senior lecturer. Upon completion of the project, he applied for a senior lecturer position at the university, but was instead offered a lecturer position because he did not have a doctoral degree. Ironically, another colleague in the same faculty who also does not have a doctoral degree applied for and was promoted to the position of senior lecturer.

I recall that in 2006, the Black African Academic Forum at UKZN expressed concern about disparities in remuneration packages between staff at the same level. I do not know how far this concern has been taken, but the flagging of the possibility of an audit proffers an opportunity for this to be addressed.

A situation where some staff members within an institution feel they are being unfairly treated in terms of access to career advancement opportunities and equal remuneration for equal work in accordance with international labour standards breeds resentment and does little to promote collegiality — an important feature of institutions of higher learning worldwide.

There are reports that some members of staff at the university have expressed disquiet about an audit of academic qualifications. There is nothing strange or untoward about such an audit. Indeed, there is ample precedent for such an exercise both within and outside South Africa. One of the country’s leading universities is currently involved in such a process. Anyone who has nothing to hide should not be apprehensive about the audit.

I believe that such an audit will contribute significantly not only to enhancing the academic integrity of the university but also to addressing issues of transformation at the institution and the incidence of staff resignations. As mentioned above, the audit should be extended to address issues such as equal remuneration for equal work.

• Dr Cephas Lumina is a member of the academic staff at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a United Nations independent human rights expert. He writes in his personal capacity.

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