/ 21 June 2012

Heavy-handed Nzimande prepares to face-off against CUT

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande
Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande

The ink was barely dry on Nzimande’s notice that he was placing the Central University of Technology (CUT) under administration before the university lashed back on Wednesday night, saying it did not accept the minister’s decision.

Now Nzimande faces an unprecedented legal battle – the first that any of the four universities placed under administration since he joined Cabinet in 2009 – has dared to mount.

The CUT council has been dissolved and vice-chancellor Thandwa Mthembu placed on “special leave”, Nzimande said in his Government Gazette notice on Wednesday.

He had accepted last month’s recommendations from the assessor he appointed to investigate CUT’s “governance and executive management”, the Gazette said.

Assessor Julian Smith had found “alleged abuse of power and misuse of funds”, audit processes, procurement and tender procedures, handling of donor funds and “any other specific allegations of financial irregularity“.

Smith found plenty of this and more, the Mail & Guardian reported last month.

Overall mismanagement
CUT is dysfunctional because of the overall mismanagement and abuse of power by both the council and the executive managers that  Mthembu heads, his report concluded.

But CUT was having none of this last month – and even less so on Wednesday. In its attack on Nzimande’s gazetted notice, the university’s council and management said it would go to “court urgently for a review of the minister’s decision”, it said in a statement.

For a start, the minister’s “decision to appoint an administrator was conveyed to the university at the last possible moment”, the statement said. This was “despite requests that the minister should inform the council timeously should he decide to [appoint one]”.

As if that were not bad enough, the council had already given Nzimande a rebuttal of the assessor’s report that pointed out its “glaring inconsistencies”.

The rebuttal “pointed out, in no uncertain terms, that the findings of [the assessor] and his recommendations are not supported by the facts”. There is also “no reasonable connection between” the recommendations to appoint an administrator and “the real circumstances at CUT”.

Gwebinkundla Qonde, director general of higher education and training, justified this week’s action against CUT: “The students in these institutions must be safeguarded against vultures bent on destroying their futures,” he told the M&G on Thursday.

“We will do that in terms of existing policies and legislation. We’re determined not to fail vulnerable students. If the vultures have nothing to hide, they must allow these [legal] processes now to unfold.”

The M&G reported in February – on an audit and other data that CUT management provided – on the university’s claims of increasing financial and governance stability since  Mthembu  became vice-chancellor in 2007.

It repeats these claims in the 70-page rebuttal it gave Nzimande on June 1. The M&G has a copy of the document, which CUT has repeatedly maintained provides evidence that “the university is stable and is performing all its functions smoothly”, its statement on Wednesday asserted.

“The university does not accept the unlawful appointment of Professor [Stanley] Ridge [as administrator] by the minister,” it concluded. “The council and management do not intend to permit Professor Ridge to commence with his appointment as administrator and the execution of his [gazetted] terms of reference until … a competent court of law has ruled on [CUT’s] application”.

Ridge is a former vice-rector of the University of the Western Cape, where he holds an emeritus professorship in English.

After Nzimande took the reins of higher education and training following the 2009 national elections, the University of Zululand became the first tertiary institution he placed under administration in 2010. Tshwane University of Technology and Walter Sisulu University followed within 18 months.

Vaal University of Technology is waiting to hear whether it will go under the minister’s cosh as well. The assessor Nzimande sent in there recommended the council should be dissolved but vice-chancellor Irene Moutlana retained, the M&G reported in May.