/ 21 May 2020

Engineering slips out of gear at varsity

Vice Chancellor Rob Midgely
Vice-chancellor Rob Midgley wants to use funds for accommodation. WSU

A proposal to reallocate R178-million, set aside to develop a new campus for its engineering faculty, to buy 11 buildings in East London has caused a rift in the highest structures of the Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in the Eastern Cape.

Two senior academics accused the university’s management, which includes the vice-chancellor and the registrar, of trying to circumvent the WSU’s 20-member council — which had already voiced displeasure with the plan to reallocate the funds — by seeking approval from the council’s executive, a sub-committee of the council. Management is also accused of punishing and targeting council members who are against the plan.

WSU’s engineering accreditation, which was granted last year based on the use of the funds for the development of facilities, is in danger of being revoked next year.

The senior faculty of science, engineering and technology academics, Dr Msimelelo Siswana, and Dr Cawe Novukela, sent a memorandum to management decrying the plan to reallocate the funds. 

Walter Sisulu University (WSU)

“The engineering programmes are due for an accreditation visit in the second semester of 2021. These programmes will not achieve full accreditation because this issue of unsuitability of the College Street site has been identified as a deficiency in previous visits,” their memorandum reads. “Full accreditation is desirable and is used as a marketing tool by the faculty.”

The sources, who are independent of the academics, also accused management of misleading the higher education department by telling it that the council had approved the proposal, yet it has not.  

The university would not comment on the details of the reallocation plan, which will see WSU management enter into negotiations with Pulse Urban Properties, the owner of the 11 buildings used as student residences, to buy the buildings for R178-million.

According to the internal proposal sent to the council and seen by the Mail & Guardian, WSU was in danger of losing the grant to the treasury after failing to spend it.

Pulse, it said, had intended to put the buildings up for auction in 2019. “When WSU management got to hear of this development, it requested Pulse to put the auction process on hold, pending a potential offer by WSU to purchase some of the properties. Pulse and WSU then entered into a suspensive sale agreement — which is essentially an option to purchase the properties currently occupied by WSU students, pending the outcome of the due diligence investigation and subsequent ministerial approval,” the proposal stated.

University spokesperson, Yonela Tukwayo said providing suitable accommodation has been at the top of WSU and the department of higher education’s (DHET’s) minds for years.

She said no decision regarding the transaction has been made. The executive committee of the council (ECC) had sought advice from members electronically. “The ECC then met, supported the proposal and decided that the matter proceed to the next stage, which was to seek DHET approval. It further decided that once the negotiations are finalised, the transaction must be presented to a full council meeting for approval, and then for ministerial approval. Although there is an ‘in principle’ agreement, the final proposal must be approved by council and DHET before the transaction is concluded.”

The M&G has seen an internal email from council member advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi in which he questions why the matter was removed from the council’s agenda to “exco” when “under university statute only council can take decisions which involve the alienation or acquisition of immovable property”.

Walter Sisulu University council member Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi. (Delwyn Verasamy)

“The business rationale of sacrificing an engineering faculty facility in favour of student accommodation does not make sense to me, especially given the strategic importance of an engineering facility for a black university. The minister of higher education has repeatedly and publicly stated his frustration about the weakness of academic programmes focused on hard sciences at black universities. We seem to be contributing to the problem, rather than solving it,” he wrote.

This week Ngcukaitobi referred all queries to WSU.

Another council member, labour representative Vuyiseka Sizani, said the purchase would kill the plan to consolidate the engineering faculty, which is spread between three sites in East London, into one campus.

Sizani’s submission was dismissed by the university’s registrar, Khaya Maphinda, on May 5, who said she had missed the April 27 deadline for input, and that her term on council had expired on April 30.

An insider, who didn’t want to be named, said: “Vuyiseka is not the only council member whose term has expired, but she is the only one who is out because she is opposed to [vice-chancellor Rob] Midgley’s plan. For example Mziwoxolo Krexe’s term is also expired, but he is still a member of council.”

Tukwayo dismissed this charge, saying: “On the matter of Vuyiseka Sizani, her term on council ended as prescribed by the university statute. She was formally reminded of this by the university registrar in February 2020 that her term was nearing the end. Her exit from the university council was 100% procedural.”

WSU was formed in the early 2000s from the merger of the Border Technikon in East London, the Eastern Cape Technikon in Butterworth and the University of Transkei in Mthatha. It also has a campus in Queenstown which is nearly 200km from East London.

There have been various iterations of proposals to consolidate specific faculties, including engineering, under one campus in one city.

The institution has had some credibility issues including the loss, in 2015, of its accreditation to offer a social science degree because of a staff shortage and poor infrastructure. The health science degree in medical orthotics and prosthetics was never accredited since its inception in 2013, and last year the university lost the accreditation for law degrees. This was after the Council for Higher Education discovered during an assessment that the LLB degree had under-qualified lecturers and inadequate lecture halls.

Last year the social sciences qualification got full accreditation after submitting a plan to address issues raised in the review, while the medical orthotics and prosthetics qualification received a conditional accreditation.

The proposal to buy the 11 buildings, which was compiled by WSU’s acting estates director Mark Roslee and signed off by Midgely, says the university was in danger of having to surrender the money to the treasury because it failed to spend it since it was allocated two years ago.

The insiders said the fund could not possibly be taken back as the process to build a new campus had already started with an offer to purchase land for it.

A report on the transaction compiled last month by Roslee said the university, which has 8000 students, owns 684 beds and leases 5400 beds in more than 70 buildings in Buffalo City metro. A financial review of the performance of the buildings showed they generated a net surplus of R20.4-million for Pulse.

“The acquisition of additional properties will strengthen the university’s balance sheet, especially since the intention is to finance the transaction from a DHET grant, which does not carry with it any payback burden. So, from a strategic perspective, the transaction would improve the university’s operational viability,” the report  said.

The purchase will need the blessings of the higher education department and the treasury. The department confirmed it had already been approached by the university.

“As indicated by WSU, council has already approved the reprioritisation in order for the vice-chancellor to finalise a sale agreement that would be subject to further council approval and then ministerial approval,” department spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi said. “The final approval of the purchase of such off-campus residences will be subject to a proper due diligence report that proves that the properties are feasible to purchase, including the safety and security of students, and other relevant evidence.”

The proposal and latest developments came as a surprise to the engineering faculty leaders — Siswana, the dean for engineering, and Novukela, the acting rector for Buffalo City campus. They warned that the decision could not only have disastrous consequences for the accreditation of the engineering programme but also for the reputation of the university.

Diverting the funds places accreditation of the engineering programme by the Engineering Council of South Africa on behalf of the Council for Higher Education, in jeopardy. Full accreditation, which the Engineering Council of South Africa has noted for years as being deficient, was based on the plan to consolidate engineering under one better-equipped campus.

The consolidation of the engineering faculty at one campus also had financial merit because laboratories would not be duplicated at a number of sites, they added.