TALKING TOUGH: Minister for Higher Education Blade Nzimande appointed assessors to investigate the rot at five universities. Picture: Cindy Waxa

Bongekile Macupe

WITH five universities placed under administration in less than a year, the management and leadership of these institutions has come under the microscope.

Assessors appointed by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande to investigate the rot have produced damning reports that paint a disturbing picture of poor governance and bad management.

“Petty” and “childish” agendas and “factions” among council members, interference, and politics are some of the findings in the assessor’s reports.

They were unanimous in their reports that council members didn’t know their roles and function.

Councils, like company boards, govern universities while the management, which includes the vice-chancellor and his or her rectorate, is in charge of daily operations. At Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), the council spent most of its meetings discussing payments or money due to council members.

Higher education observers have cited weak management and interfering councils as the root cause of dysfunctional campuses.

Rolf Stumpf, higher education consultant and a former vice-chancellor, said the reports by the assessors indicated there was a need for council members to be trained, and a need for smaller councils – along with selection criteria to ensure that only competent, experienced people who understood the sector, were appointed as council members.

Acting chief executive officer of Higher Education SA (Hesa), Jeffrey Mabelebele, said, “some council members do require induction… to perform their fiduciary duties” .

The assessors’ reports indicated that some council members wanted to be all things – including micro-managing vice-chancellors. The clash between university councils and their management bodies led to crises in several tertiary institutions in the mid 1990s but the institutions’ autonomous acts made it difficult for a minister to intervene.

As a result, former Education Minister Kader Asmal armed himself with the law to enable him to appoint administrators to take over the running of institutions where and when needed.

Mabelebele said Hesa hoped that the appointed administrators would be able to get the institutions “on track in relation to their core business of teaching and learning”.

“The university enterprise has not been completely compromised as a result of the reports,” he added.

Nico Cloete, director of the think tank, Centre for Higher Education Transformation, said the system was not in crisis but that many problems were being experienced by mainly historically disadvantaged universities. Cloete said administrators were not the solution.

Department of Higher Education spokesperson Vuyelwa Qinga said the three institutions that had been placed under administration last year were making good progress.

Most recently, this month, the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) was placed under administration, and last month it was Bloemfontein’s Central University of Technology (CUT).

However, CUT’s vice-chancellor Thandwa Mthembu and the university’s council are challenging the decision by minister Nzimande in the High Court, Bloemfontein.

The CUT council has been dissolved and Mthembu placed on “special leave pending further investigation on his leadership and management style”.

Last year, Nzimande decided that the Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape, TUT and the University of Zululand be placed under administration. In terms of the Higher Education Act of 1997, the administrators are empowered to take over the authority and function of the council.

At VUT, an independent assessor, advocate Muzi Sikhakhane, found that there was “unending conflict” at council level which was exacerbated by “cliques” within council and top management.

These cliques hindered the council’s functioning. Very few councillors had served on boards, and the quality of their debate was poor.

Meanwhile, the independent assessor appointed at TUT, Vincent Maphai, found ”too much politics” in the council.

Council spent too much time debating council packages; in one set of minutes there were four full pages on council’s remuneration.