Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor says the shortcomings of some of the country’s previously disadvantaged universities are because of poor leadership, which needs to be strengthened if the institutions are to thrive.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian this week, Pandor said her department can offer support to the universities but cannot be expected to run them.
Of South Africa’s 26 public universities, those that are recognised as historically disadvantaged are the universities of Fort Hare, Limpopo, Venda, Walter Sisulu, the Western Cape and Zululand, as well as the Mangosuthu University of Technology and the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University.
Even with the years of government support since the country’s transition to democracy, they still lag behind the institutions regarded as being historically white and better resourced — from their graduation throughput and quality of academics to their infrastructure.
They are also often in the spotlight for the wrong reasons, such as the protracted violent student protests that lead to shutdowns for weeks on end, resulting in little teaching and learning taking place.
Then there’s allegations of corruption and maladministration against senior managers and the poor safety measures on campuses, resulting in students being attacked or even murdered.
Pandor has been in the job for just three months, having replaced Hlengiwe Mkhize after a Cabinet reshuffle by President Cyril Ramaphosa. She said some people have already become impatient with her, wanting her to resolve some of the sector’s long-standing issues with haste.
“There are perennial problems at some of the institutions that I think we need to look into. I know some people have been complaining that I’m taking long but I also feel that one must be measured. You should not just take a decision because someone complains; you need to establish what the issues are and what has happened previously — has there been proper investigations [and] if not, why not?
“So I am now at a stage where I’m able to move on these matters. But I have been in a more listening phase, going through documentation and being able then to arrive at a decision that I’m comfortable about,” said Pandor.
But, in the end, she cannot “run a university” and it’s only a university’s leaders who can change their institution, she said. “Vice-chancellors, really, in the end, are the ones who shape the character [of the university].
“So I think it’s absolutely vital that one of the things that we do is that we provide support to the leadership of the universities to lead. And we must also accept that where there is poor leadership, the [university] council must be ready to act.”
She said most worrying for her was the fear that students have about the value of their qualifications because of the negative public perceptions attached to certain universities.
“I was very moved by the students that I met [at the University of Zululand]. They appreciate having a university close to where they live, and go there with the hope that they will get a degree that will give them a chance in life. And their biggest worry is reputation — that because of corruption, the stories in the public domain, they feel their degree is undervalued,” she said.
UniZulu is one of the historically disadvantaged universities that have received bad press over the years because of allegations of corruption involving senior leaders at the institution, which was also rocked by findings that it was issuing fake qualifications.
Pandor said the concerning situations at these institutions were often intensified by their councils’ failure to exercise their governance function properly. She intends to pay closer attention to the role university councils play and has already told some that they are not there to deal with operational matters.
“And so when I hear, as I have done, that a council member is involved in contracting for construction projects on the university campus for which he is a governor, and actually gets the contract, I think that is a high level of irresponsibility. And at times they have not declared [an interest], nor have they recused themselves from deliberations on these contracts. I think that is disgusting. And those sorts of people should not be allowed to serve on councils.”
She has instructed officials in her department to develop a file of names of individuals of “high ethical standards and reputation” and make selections for ministerial council appointments from that list.
Pandor said it is “scary” to learn that some of the problematic council members were ministerial appointments.
“Some of the stories are pretty horrifying. I referred to people getting contracts and tenders from the very same institution in which they are appointed to serve, but even worse is having people who actually become so directly involved with the university that they almost have meetings every day — and councils should only meet four times a year, as with the board of a corporate; they should not be meeting on such a regular basis. The worst is some of them set themselves very high honorariums and are almost earning a salary. All of these things must stop.”
Pandor said her department has adopted a good governance protocol that will be used to enforce ethical conduct among the people who serve on university councils. The department will also be publishing a report on the performance of councils, to gain an overview of their activities and to ensure they are aware that they are being scrutinised.
When higher education hits a low
In 2011, an independent assessor’s report found that the University of Zululand was involved in issuing fake qualifications. In 2012, two forensic audits by the university uncovered that employees were in possession of blank degrees and diplomas that could be used to manufacture and sell fraudulent qualifications to students.
In 2016, the Sunday Times reported that fake degrees were being sold at the university and that male lecturers were passing female students in exchange for sex.
The Walter Sisulu University has been in the news largely for the wrong reasons. Just last week, five students were arrested on one of the university’s campuses in Mthatha after being bust for manufacturing drugs in one of the rooms at a campus residence. The students were not only found with drugs but also with identity documents, cellphones and stolen electronic goods.
The University of Fort Hare, with its rich history of producing iconic leaders, has also attracted negative publicity. Last month, the Sunday Times reported that vice-chancellor Professor Sakhela Buhlungu had to be given 24-hour security because of his stance against corruption and maladministration at the institution.
Just this week, students from the University of Limpopo have been protesting and have vowed that they will not sit for their June exams unless the institution brings outsourced general workers in-house and permanently hires staff members who are now in acting positions. — Bongekile Macupe