Unisa: Damning report reveals bullying, financial irregularities and how embattled VC built empire for herself

Unisa Vice-Chancellor Professor Puleng LenkaBula was accused of poor management, maladministration and displaying an authoritarian management style. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)

Unisa Vice-Chancellor Professor Puleng LenkaBula was accused of poor management, maladministration and displaying an authoritarian management style. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA)

Published May 30, 2023


An independent assessment of the mismanagement of the University of South Africa (Unisa) has revealed a cauldron of instability characterised by a culture of fear, intimidation and bullying, instances of maladministration and financial irregularities.

Others include human resource failures, a fragile and troubled ICT environment, poor student services, academic malpractices, leakages of confidential records, and questionable management and council decisions.

The troubling inefficiencies were laid bare in a 309-page report compiled by Professor Themba Mosia and was tabled by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. It recommended the institution be placed under administration.

Nzimande appointed Professor Mosia as an independent assessor to investigate the source of the problems at the 150-year-old institution and to propose measures to restore good governance and management, after Vice-Chancellor Professor Puleng LenkaBula was accused of poor management, maladministration and displaying an authoritarian management style.

Mosia gathered data and information from a range of institutional policies, reports, minutes of meetings, submissions from the university community, social media posts and media reports, and numerous interviews over a wide-ranging spectrum of Unisa stakeholders. In addition, he also read all submissions made to the minister on Unisa, since 2015.

He found many policies were outdated and had not been reviewed as required by the university. In addition, these policies had been violated by management and the council.

He said non-compliance with policies and condonation of questionable decisions were pervasive. As a result of non-adherence to policies and other factors, he found it was “fashionable” at Unisa to seek legal opinions that came at a high cost to the institution.

“My assessment is that the University Council failed in its responsibility to ensure stability, strategic direction, financial compliance and a positive public image of the university.

“Council has not exercised the duty of care by taking the public into its confidence to be faithful and honest in the execution of the mandate bestowed on it.

“The problems at Unisa have been left for too long to metastasise to a point where all sections of the university are affected in one way or the other,” Mosia said in his detailed report.

Mosia noted numerous meetings had been held by the minister with Unisa, but he found those meetings did not amount to any intervention that could have prevented the Ministerial Task Team from being appointed.

The report also detailed the inefficiencies in the Registrar's portfolio insofar as delivering impeccable services to students, the management of academic affairs and related functions is concerned.

It also found the office of the Dean of Students, which reports to the Registrar, had been dysfunctional partly because of the “immature” handling of the conflict between the Registrar and the VC.

He said the relationship between the VC and Registrar became so dysfunctional that the delivery of essential services had been suffering.

“I found financial irregularities particularly in SCM, including policy deviations, disregard for due process and other questionable decisions by management and the council,” Mosia said.

Human resources and organised labour were also a source of concern for many in the Unisa fraternity, he said.

In his analysis of policies, Mosia said there was general non-compliance and nonchalant practices that did not respect the university.

Staff in the HR department are also alleged to have carried out differential treatment of employees and in some instances favoured the trade unions.

“The organisational structure is not fit for purpose, and this has been left for too long to address so that the university can function optimally. I received may complaints from colleges and other administrative departments about the ineffectiveness of the HR department.

“There is at Unisa a pervasive culture of fear, intimidation and bullying,” he added.

Academic departments were found to be under-staffed, with some experiencing burnout, and it was reported that many assignments were either unmarked or lost while some students wrote exams without knowing their assignment marks.

Mosia said the general student experience at Unisa was “dismal” as students are forced to turn to social media to voice their concerns. They are not getting through to the call centre and their enquiries are not attended to within reasonable time frames. Academics who attempt to assist students get caught-up in administrative processes when they should be focusing on teaching and learning.

In addition, new systems have been implemented without proper consultation with staff and students and without the necessary training either. When students experience challenges with the new systems they are unable to get assistance and support.

Mosia said there were many complaints about students who experienced system challenges during the exams.

“Students are rightfully frustrated in terms of service delivery at Unisa, about late results, waiting months for their completion letters, waiting months for their disciplinary cases to be heard, complaining about their information being available to external parties, and about Unisa’s poor responsiveness, among others. Students are in many instances helpless and desperate,” he said.

Mosia added he found it especially “disheartening” that instead of the council holding management responsible for the poor quality of services to students, it stated “students have a tendency to complain”.

He said he also observed a pattern of denial and ignorance from the Unisa Council and management, even in situations where indefensible facts were presented to them.

Mosia lambasted the council for gross dereliction of duties, including failing in its fiduciary oversight.

“As if the pushing of employees out of Unisa in an attempt to fund an irregular increase in staff salaries was not enough, the council approved an increase in the staff complement in the VC’s office amounting to millions of rand, money that could have been used to rather re-skill or train staff.

“I cannot understand how the council could have approved this proposal in the current Unisa environment and I doubt if the council applied its mind.

“The decision to populate the office of the VC with positions that are clear duplications of already established departments and functions at Unisa, for a VC who has less than three years left of her term, is mind boggling. I wonder how the council cannot question or interrogate the proposal and question the motive or circumstances.

“’How can the council approve the creation of a small empire in the VC’s office?” he said.

Mosia said he found the council was not only plagued with indecision, but it failed the taxpayers of South Africa by revising strategy after strategy without any real impact.

And while it had failed to ensure the university was well-managed, performance bonuses were paid to the executive management.

“Overall, the council failed in its duty to protect the good name and reputation of the oldest University in South Africa,” Mosia said, suggesting the full administration of Unisa where the council and management should be relieved of their duties.