UKZN in fix over revoked degree

2015-08-04 08:31

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Durban - The University of KwaZulu-Natal is appealing a decision by a high court judge last year that the university had no legal authority to revoke a PhD degree conferred on senior UKZN lecturer Nobubele Potwana.

The degree was controversially revoked in November 2011 — six years after Potwana graduated with her PhD on April 14, 2005.

This happened after Potwana and her former supervisor at UKZN, Professor Pumela Msweli-Mbanga, were both acquitted of fraud charges relating to the issue of the degree in 2009.

Msweli-Mbanga was the dean of the faculty of management studies.

Attending the high court appeal in Pietermaritzburg on Monday a cheerful Potwana, who was represented by advocate Kemp J Kemp SC, declined to comment on the proceedings “at this stage”.

She confirmed, however, that she is now retired.

The full bench consisting of three judges — Judge Anton van Zyl, Judge Thoba Poyo-Dlwati and Judge Themba Sishi — reserved judgment on the appeal.

UKZN is appealing the decision by Acting Judge Mahendra Chetty last January, who ruled that the university senate had no legal authority to revoke Potwana’s degree or to have appointed a “fourth examiner” to review her thesis based on which her degree was conferred on her.

Chetty found that the university could not lawfully revoke a degree other than in cases of fraud or misconduct.

At the time that Potwana enrolled for her PhD she already had a Master’s degree in business administration from UKZN and was employed by a petroleum company which sponsored the completion of her MBA and PhD.

During arguments before the full bench Kemp submitted that there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Potwana in relation to obtaining her PhD. He submitted that she had been “caught in the crossfire” of an “extremely bitter” dispute in which attempts were made to prove that her supervisor [Msweli-Mbanga] was guilty of acting disreputably.

The “war” resulted from allegations that Msweli-Mbanga had an intimate relationship with another doctoral student (and chief financial officer of the university), and a claim by her estranged husband that she had awarded degrees to students in exchange for payment. She in turn made “serious allegations” against the university’s then vice-chancellor, Malegapuru Makgoba.

“In the fallout [Potwana’s] qualification also came to be questioned,” submitted Kemp.

Kemp said the dispute “had nothing” to do with Potwana.

He said the university does not allege that she was responsible for any wrongdoing and rightly, does not attribute any fraud or dishonesty to her in this case.

He said she submitted her doctoral thesis to three examiners (two external). While requiring certain “revisions”, two of them were satisfied her PhD be conferred.

Without hearing her, in 2010, the university called for a fourth examiner to re-examine her thesis, who reported back that “significant parts had to be re-written, including covering literature which appeared after her thesis was accepted”, said Kemp.

“When she took the stance that she had done the thesis — and as far as she was concerned, the required corrections — the Senate revoked her degree on November 2, 2011”.

Advocate Michael Smithers for UKZN submitted that the university had a duty to revoke a degree if it was not satisfied that requirements were complied with.

To hold that a university could not withdraw a degree, would undermine public confidence in and the integrity of degrees, call into question academic standards, and harm those who relied on their degrees, he said.

He maintained the university’s conduct in the case was “unassailable”.

Read more on:    ukzn  |  durban  |  education

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