Call to oppose Nzimande’s decision to place Unisa under administration

Unisa main campus in Muckleneuck. Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA)

Unisa main campus in Muckleneuck. Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Aug 20, 2023


THE Department of Higher Education’s decision to place Unisa under administration is believed to be an attack on institutional independence and freedom.

Unisa lecturer in professional ethics Mametlwe Sebei said the decision should be opposed because it was a brazen attack on the institutional autonomy of the university, and was without justification and sound legal basis.

Earlier this month, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande announced that he intended to place the institution under administration.

He had written a letter to Unisa council chairperson Jams Maboa about his intention to exercise his powers under section 49(b) of the Higher Education Act.

Nzimande gave the council an opportunity to reply within seven days.

This followed Professor Themba Mosia’s independent report into the issues at Unisa and that of the ministerial task team (MTT), chaired by Dr Vincent Maphai, in 2021, which also detailed Unisa’s challenges.

Both reports recommended that Unisa be placed under administration.

Mosia, who was appointed last year, investigated various allegations relating to maladministration and tender irregularities. He also recommended that vice-chancellor (VC) Professor Puleng LenkaBula’s management team be relieved of their duties.

Nzimande’s spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi did not respond to requests for comment.

Unisa spokesperson Thomas Huma said Unisa has a communication policy that designated certain officials to speak on its behalf on corporate and policy matters.

He said the function was delegated to the corporate communication unit of the university and a spokesperson had been appointed for that purpose.

“Academics of the university are also within their rights to express their opinions on any matters, especially topics falling within their areas of practice.

“The academic in question is stationed within our College of Law and expressed an opinion on a matter from a legal basis. Nowhere did he say that he is speaking on behalf of the institution. The views he expressed in the said interview are entirely his own,” said Huma.

Sebei called on trade unions and students’ movements to oppose Nzimande’s decision and defend the “hard-won right to democratically elect the university council that would transform the administration, academic and research project of the university – in the interests of its students, workers and society”.

Sebei said students and trade unions should not put their faith in the ANC government that had facilitated the capture of the universities, including Unisa, and other public services.

He said Nzimade and those in the department were hypocritically beamon while they had been central to the collapse of Unisa.

“Unisa, like many public institutions in the past years, suffered what can only be characterised as a Zumafication on the state, where public institutions were hijacked by tenderpreneual interests, enabled by rent-seeking corrupt elements and mediocrity.”

“Those in the Department of Higher Education and Training, who today want to takeover Unisa, were central to this project in the ANC and beyond. To suggest they want to clean Unisa of corruption they allowed to fester for so long is naive, to say the least,” said Sebei.

He added: “Like Professor Mosia, whom they appointed despite clear conflict of interests, it is doubtful if the department is intervening today to stop the capture of the university by tenderpreneurs, mediocrity and corrupt elements they have abetted over a long period of time, and not the attempts to eliminate this.”

He said it was vital that the Nzimande heavily referenced the MTT which concluded its work in 2021. Sebei added that the task team report demonstrated the problems with the university, and the problems have been correctly restated by the assessor’s report.

“They need to be regurgitated here, as the most fundamental of these are not in dispute, save for spurious allegations and lack of integrity by the independent assessor, Professor Mosia, who exploited this to muddy the current direction of the university.”

Sebei said Nzimande’s decision failed to account for the drastic changes in the management of the university since the submission of the MTT report.

He said that since the MTT report, Unisa had appointed a new vice-chancellor and tremendous effort had gone into turning the situation around.

“For instance, the MTT report correctly points to the state of the university finances. But since then, the finances of the university have improved drastically.”

He said Unisa’s reserves had increased by approximately R6 billion, from R9bn. That had led Mosia to concede that the university was financially sustainable.

Sebei said the improvements were mainly to the termination of tenders that Nzimande seemed to suggest they needed to reinstate.

“In this case, the new VC decided to terminate a tender for laptop procurement and instead gave every qualified Unisa staff member a laptop cash advance to buy the laptops in an open market (meaning any laptop retail shop). In terms of accounting assessments, this decision alone saved the university over R400 million.”

Sebei said Nzimande’s decision was institutional autonomy of universities. It diluted significant elements of democratic working-class control and management of universities which have insulated the institutions from the worst predatory monopoly corporate interests and primitive accumulation by dispossession of the aspirant black capitalism.

He said that was facilitated by the ANC across the public service.

“It is this autonomy which the minister wants to subvert which has ensured that universities alone stand as a point of positive reference to possibilities of public service and SOEs which today are crippled by these parasitic interests.

“From public health care, and basic education, to Eskom, SAA and Prasa, state-appointed unaccountable bureaucracy beholden to the corporate and political elite interests has completely ruined public services for the working-class people.

“Unisa workers and students must fight to oppose the decision of the minister and to call for fresh elections of the university council to restore the integrity of the university governance structures.

“The university needs institutional leadership that can defend its autonomy, not only from the government but also predatory interests and profiteering.”