What is killing our universities?

The Vaal University of Technology has been put under administration following breakdowns in leadership, management and governance. An investigation by independent assessors uncovered pervasive corruption involving role players at the university. Picture: Sifiso Jimta
The Vaal University of Technology has been put under administration following breakdowns in leadership, management and governance. An investigation by independent assessors uncovered pervasive corruption involving role players at the university. Picture: Sifiso Jimta

Like other sectors of society, our once-prized tertiary institutions have become prey to corruption and poor governance, with public apathy adding to the crisis

The academic year has begun with student protests on many university campuses.

A student was murdered by a fellow student at a residence of the University of Fort Hare in Alice, Eastern Cape. (Of course, this has nothing to do with the protests!)

There has been a sit-in at the University of the Witwatersrand in Gauteng, and the burning of academic buildings and destruction of infrastructure at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere.

South Africans are getting used to the volatile and angry environment on our campuses.

However, with the major victories of the 2016 #FeesMustFall campaign, which secured free higher education for students from poor and working-class backgrounds, the stabilisation of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas), increasingly sympathetic vice-chancellors and an equally sympathetic minister of higher education, it seems odd that such protests should persist.

What exactly lies behind the instability?

On the face of it, students have now laid out new grievances: that historic debt be scrapped; that there be an end to academic exclusions; and that there be resistance to the requirements that students pay a deposit at registration.

Like other sectors of society, our once-prized tertiary institutions have become prey to corruption and poor governance, with public apathy adding to the crisis.

Many student formations continue to complain and protest about conditions at many of our universities with regard to accommodation and facilities.

Though less strident, their calls for the decolonisation and Africanisation of the curriculum remain unresolved issues.

Well, it sounds like the legendary recurring decimal, if ever there was one!

However, questions must remain about the condition and health of our higher education institutions.

Is the South African taxpayer, during a time of economic hardship, getting value for money?

The challenges faced by our universities can be gauged by the fact that in the past year, two universities have been put under administration following serious breakdowns in leadership, management and governance.

The universities are Fort Hare and the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) in Vanderbijlpark, on the East Rand.

At both institutions, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande has used the powers bestowed on him to put in place teams of independent assessors.

He has also dissolved the universities’ councils and appointed administrators.

These are drastic steps for any minister to take.

It was my unenviable task, together with a colleague, Professor Rocky Ralebipi-Simela, to serve as independent assessors for the VUT.

The minister has received the report and it has been published in the Government Gazette.

The purpose of this article is to alert our nation to a worrying trend at our institutions

The purpose of this article is to alert our nation to a worrying trend at our institutions.

In some respects, it is no different from what has been experienced in other sectors of public life: the breakdown of governance, along with maladministration and pervasive corruption.

These, and poor or ineffectual leadership, threaten the confidence with which universities ought to be viewed by society as places where leaders are moulded, societal values shaped and knowledge advanced.

In other words, universities are not just places of advanced learning; they are also the pride of the nation.

Nearly R100 billion has been allocated to higher education, Nsfas and the Technical and Vocational Education and Training colleges in the financial year 2019/20.

South Africa spends 0.75% of its gross domestic product on higher education – not too dissimilar to what advanced economies such the UK and US spend.

The picture that we uncovered at VUT tells a sordid tale.

In our view, besides the breakdown in support systems for the university project, at the heart of it is a morality that sees the university as a place to be exploited for its resources and giving as little as possible to make the institution sustainable.

There is a pervasive and shameless sense from certain organised formations – including unions, students and service providers – that they have a right to milk the institution dry with impunity. In the process, we have found, the mission of the university gets lost.

The university is no longer a place for the advancement and production of knowledge, but a factory that becomes a mere workplace.

We proposed that the university needed a new institutional statute that deliberately limited the power and influence of internal stakeholders

Two elements of this culture shocked us to the core.

The first was that in an economically depressed area where unemployment is very high, the university serves as a place of pride, purpose and hope.

We received many protestations that the university is the place owned by the people of the region.

We noted, however, that it was exactly the people whom the university seeks to serve who are engaged in its destruction.

We observed that VUT was failing to serve the needs of this place, which has enormous potential as an industrial hub – with tourism and the water reservoir and conservation systems of the Vaal Dam much in need of environmental and engineering skills, for which the university trains.

Our second observation was that, like a tragicomedy – or as if to show suicidal tendencies – society no longer had any sense of moral panic about the devastation and destruction of a once-prized institution.

In other words, not only did we not have any sense of public revulsion at the wholesale looting of the institution’s resources, but local businesses, suppliers and local government were either observing as spectators and not lifting a finger to stop this, or were also part of the problem in that they were paying kickbacks and successfully undermining VUT’s supply chain management system.

Given this situation, what could we advise the minister?

VUT is never going to become the institution it ought to be unless it develops a new mind-set about its mission and purpose

As already indicated, we proposed that the university council be dissolved, that an administrator be appointed and that the then implicated and ineffectual vice-chancellor be fired.

We noted that over about 20 years, this university had had three similar interventions by the minister and that corruption and misconduct were deeply embedded in the university’s DNA.

We proposed that the university needed a new institutional statute that deliberately limited the power and influence of internal stakeholders, and that the top two echelons of VUT’s executive management – many of whom have been at the institution for many years – be redeployed.

We were advised that at the heart of the problems at the university were the tenders. We resolved that all suppliers in VUT’s database should declare any role they might have played in the irregular and unlawful procurement activities at VUT, and in this way, review the database – even if it meant introducing new suppliers.

We have also called for a major investigation by the SA Police Service and the Hawks into the corruption and malfeasance there, so that those who enriched themselves unlawfully be arrested and stand trial.

We believe that the university should be repurposed to reprioritise its academic project; review courses and qualifications; pay attention to its academic profile; and attend to the woefully lacking academic facilities, infrastructure and equipment, which are requisites for a modern university.

VUT is never going to become the institution it ought to be unless it develops a new mind-set about its mission and purpose, and unless the university and stakeholders – which include academics, students and administrators, together with the community – develop a renewed true love for the place.

We sincerely believe that this institution has pride of place in the higher education system of our country.

Professor Pityana sits on the advisory council of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation. He and Professor Rocky Ralebipi-Simela were appointed as independent investigators to assess the affairs of the Vaal University of Technology. Their report was gazetted on Friday


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