MPs want inquiry into academics’ pay

In a statement on Thursday, the committee said that, although it respects the autonomy of universities to decide on salaries, it was concerned about the high pay some senior managers receive. (Oupa Nkosi)

In a statement on Thursday, the committee said that, although it respects the autonomy of universities to decide on salaries, it was concerned about the high pay some senior managers receive. (Oupa Nkosi)

The portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology wants an inquiry into the salaries of vice-chancellors and senior managers at universities.

The committee says that — compared to the performance of some of these institutions in terms of research outputs and throughput rates — the salaries of some of the university leaders are not justifiable.

Last week, The Sunday Times published a story showing how much some vice-chancellors earned last year. Unisa vice-chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya earned the most, at R5.2-million a year.

In a statement on Thursday, the committee said that, although it respects the autonomy of universities to decide on salaries, it was concerned about the high pay some senior managers receive. Its chairperson, Philly Mapulane, is going to request that the minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, commission an inquiry through the Council on Higher Education into the salaries of vice-chancellors and senior managers at these institutions and report back to Parliament.

The council is the body that advises the minister.

Mapulane said: “Universities are public institutions which must be accountable to the people of South Africa, through their elected representatives, about the prudent management of their finances.
This question of remuneration of senior executive managers, if left unattended, may become a runaway train and, therefore, we are calling for action to be taken to regulate it.”

Writing in the Mail & Guardian two years ago, (“VCs: Set a trend for moderate pay”, September 22 2017) a former University of Durban-Westville vice-chancellor, Jairam Reddy, warned that if the matter of high salaries of vice-chancellors is not attended to then the government would intervene to regulate the salaries. He said that would be “a most undesirable development that will compromise institutional autonomy”.

“One should not underestimate the stress, long work hours and many problems faced by vice-chancellors. But there is no better place than a university to set a precedent for our students, and no better person than a vice-chancellor to do so. By accepting a reasonable pay package, vice-chancellors and senior executives of universities can send a powerful message to the corporate sector and to parastatals about their determination to lower the Gini index and the prevailing high levels of inequality in our country,” wrote Reddy.

A 2012 study by Higher Education South Africa — now known as Universities South Africa (USAf) — looking into the salaries of staff found that academics are paid “relatively well” compared to both public and private sectors, particularly those at senior level.

Vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Adam Habib, believes that there is no need for an inquiry. He told the M&G on Thursday that the portfolio committee must just have the “courage to lead and legislate”.

“Stop talking about it, and write policy,” he said.

He added that if the portfolio committee found vice-chancellors’ salaries exorbitant then it would have to say what the benchmark is. “You don’t have to do another inquiry, read the previous report. Stop wasting funds on new enquiries and have the courage to make decisions.”

USAf chief executive Professor Ahmed Bawa told the M&G that the organisation had no position on inquiry, but 10 years ago a study was conducted that provided a framework for councils to determine the salaries of vice-chancellors. He said it might be time to repeat that.

Bongekile Macupe

Bongekile Macupe

Bongekile Macupe is the education reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She is an award-winning journalist who has extensively covered both basic and higher education in South Africa. Her coverage includes #FeesMustFall, the case of Michael Komape and education in rural areas.  Read more from Bongekile Macupe

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