Blade Nzimande, the minister of higher education, science and technology, has warned university vice-chancellors against undermining his authority by going to the presidency behind his back to discuss challenges in the sector.
A visibly irritated Nzimande was speaking at the beginning of a three-day higher education conference organised by Universities South Africa (USAf) — a membership organisation representing South Africa’s universities — in Pretoria on Wednesday.
Nzimande implored university leadership to handle the relationship between himself, his department and themselves with care, professionalism and integrity.
Nzimande told delegates he does not want to act opportunistically when universities are in trouble by saying they must deal with their issues themselves. He added that while he is aware that institutions are facing pressure but they must not point fingers at the government.
“I don’t like this business of thinking we will be able to solve problems by wanting a mini department of higher education to be created in the presidency without my knowledge. I want to repeat this in this forum because if there is one thing that drives me absolutely mad, I will be honest with you, it is that.”
He referred to how, in 2015 at the beginning of #FeesMustFall protests, vice-chancellors “jumped” and asked for a meeting with former president Jacob Zuma without his knowledge. He detailed how a 0% no-fee increase was announced without him, as the minister responsible for the higher education portfolio, knowing.
He said this was announced even though he had just announced fee increases of not more than 6%, which he had agreed to with vice-chancellors.
Zuma announced the 0% no fee increase for the 2016 academic year after students had marched to the Union Buildings the previous October. He made the announcement after being locked in a meeting with vice-chancellors and student leaders.
“You fell into politics that you were not aware of. There were internal politics inside government, inside the ruling party, you played into the hands of those politics,” Nzimande told attendees.
He said vice-chancellors can request to see the president but they cannot do so behind his back.
“I have to say this in front of everybody, let’s act in a professional, non-opportunistic way and with integrity and respect for each other. That is part of stakeholder management. I promise to do my bit. I will not go and meet with your council without the vice-chancellor knowing.”
To murmurs in the room, Nzimande added: “I am saying it for the last time Professor Bawa [Ahmed Bawa the CEO of Universities South Africa] because I do not want to be repeating it all the time. It’s been troubling me and that is why I spoke about it and I hope it does not happen again. You apologised, I accepted. But I have to repeat it here.”
He was also unflinchingly critical of historically disadvantaged universities, warning them that it is time they get their houses in order. He said there was “no free lunch”, and that even though these universities need to be supported they also must work towards being stable.
“I was out of the sector for 19 months but when I come back to the same institutions that were under administration when I started are back under administration,” he said.
The minister did not mention the universities by name, but one that Nzimande put under administration in 2012 was Vaal University of Technology (VUT) — under the leadership of Professor Irene Moutlana. Heplaced the university under administration after independent assessor, advocate Muzi Sikhakhane, found that there was unending conflict and cliques in VUT’s council and top management.
In August, former University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor, Professor Ihron Rensburg, was announced as an administrator at VUT.
Rensburg’s appointment came after former higher education minister Naledi Pandor, appointed professors Barney Pityana and Rocky Ralebipi-Simela, as independent assessors at the university earlier this year to investigate the challenges around governance and management at the institution.
City Press reported in May that VUT’s vice-chancellor, Professor Gordon Zide, was under fire for appointing a female director in his office who was seen to be underqualified for the position. The newspaper also reported that there were concerns about poor governance and administration under Zide’s leadership.
These controversies come just over two years since Zide was appointed as vice-chancellor at VUT.
“I do not believe that there is anything inherent in HDIs that make them to be unstable, I don’t believe that. I know that there are historical problems that they face that we must address but also together we need to work to make them stable. It cannot be that government puts in money for infrastructure. It is like throwing a bone amongst the dogs. That is another problem we are facing. Money for infrastructure some universities were unable to spend it for the last six years because they are fights around who should have gotten a tender, partly that is not the universities problem but it relates to stakeholders management.”
On university infrastructure, Nzimande said he was aware that there were talks to mobilise a second wave of student protest around student accommodation. He, however, said that the academics must not be afraid and that instead there needs to be engagement around the issue.
“I would like that I work very closely with universities on this particular matter. What government is doing , and possibly, to even look for more money to be able to address this ten year plan that we have to at least hopefully get to 80% of the students having accommodation,” he said.
The conference is expected to conclude on Friday. Some of the issues to be discussed include student funding, infrastructure and research.