Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has appointed an assessor to investigate governance, financial management and procurement practices at the crisis-ridden Vaal University of Technology (VUT).
His move spotlights yet again the pervasively shaky, and sometimes corrupt, management at several South African universities — three of which Nzimande has placed under administration in the past year alone.
The assessor must advise Nzimande and the VUT council on “problems” that include “those relating to governance, financial management and procurement practices, administration matters [and] student governance”, he announced in a notice published in the Government Gazette on February 10.
The notice specifies VUT’s “governance and executive management structures” for the assessor’s detailed attention. It also instructs the assessor to investigate “financial policy and procedures”, focusing particularly on “internal audit processes, procurement and tender procedures, expenditure on legal fees, donor funding management [and] the management of [state] allocations”.
The office of the registrar is also specified. The assessor will scrutinise this office, which at any university is responsible for ensuring the credibility of the qualifications it awards, for its “management of academic affairs, registration and certification matters”.
Student governance too will be investigated, in a report the assessor must make within 10 days of being appointed.
Sending in an assessor is frequently, though not inevitably, a prelude to the education minister’s appointment of an administrator to take over the governance powers of the council or the executive management (including the vice-chancellor), or both.
Legislation enables the minister to decide whether or not to implement an assessor’s recommendations in that regard. But dissolving a university’s main governance structures is the option Nzimande has taken three times in the past year, when he placed the University of Zululand, Tshwane University of Technology and Walter Sisulu University under administration — a drastic governance intervention under which all three still operate.
A former technikon, VUT has about 20 000 students and 1 000 academic and administrative staff. Its main residential campus is in Vanderbijlpark, southern Gauteng, and there are three satellite campuses that collectively account for a third of all VUT students. These are in Secunda (Mpumalanga), Kempton Park (Gauteng) and Upington (Northern Cape).
In the past decade, VUT’s serial management crises have ensured that the institution has spent little time outside the headlines, most spectacularly under former vice-chancellor Aubrey Mokadi, whose penchant for comparing himself favourably to Jesus Christ the Mail & Guardian exposed in March 2006.
The 400-page investigation that highlighted this unusual personality trait also recommended Mokadi’s prompt dismissal and that criminal charges be laid against him on the basis of alleged fraud and corruption.
Into this governance mess — a university that was an “ashtray”, the M&G reported one insider saying at the time — stepped current vice-chancellor Irene Moutlana, when she succeeded Mokadi in January 2007 and became one of only three women then heading universities in South Africa.
“Beneath the progressive rhetorics espoused by our universities lie both hidden and overt agendas of conflict, greed, self interest, fraudulent practices and other acts of fiscal irresponsibility,” she said at her inauguration a few months later.
This week Moutlana said she and VUT top management “fully support” Nzimande’s intervention.
Responding to the M&G‘s questions on Wednesday, she said: “[W]e requested the appointment of the assessor and believe that his recommendations to the minister will assist to establish a favourable environment for the further development of the university …
“We therefore look forward to a constructive engagement with the assessor to improve the process of furthering the goals of VUT.”