Maverick Citizen

HIGHER EDUCATION

Unisa vice-chancellor’s fate in the balance after Nzimande plans to put institution under administration

Unisa vice-chancellor’s fate in the balance after Nzimande plans to put institution under administration
Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande wants to place the University of South Africa under administration and is awaiting the university council’s response.

The future of the University of South Africa (Unisa) vice-chancellor (VC) Professor Puleng LenkaBula hangs in the balance after Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande announced on Monday, 7 August, that he intends to place the institution under administration.

Nzimande’s spokesperson, Ishmael Mnisi, said the minister had written to Unisa council chairperson James Maboa on Friday, 4 August, about his intention to exercise his powers in terms of section 49(b) of the Higher Education Act. He gave the council an opportunity to reply within seven days.

Nzimande’s decision followed Professor Themba Mosia’s independent report into 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 was appointed by Nzimande last year to investigate various allegations relating to maladministration and tender irregularities.

Mnisi said the council would be dissolved but did not mention whether any action would be taken against LenkaBula and her management.

However, Mosia recommended in his report that LenkaBula’s management team be relieved of their duties.

Unisa has not commented on the matter, despite questions being sent to it by Daily Maverick on Monday.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) called on the Unisa council to suspend LenkaBula to allow for an investigation to be undertaken freely and without any interference from her. 

“The VC had directly created instability in the institution with her high-handed management of the university which has led to mismanagement, collapse of cordial relations, maladministration in the institution, undermining the collective bargaining, disregarding labour laws and authoritarian management including union bashing, victimisation, harassment, intimidation of employees and violation of recruitment policies,” Nehawu said in a statement issued on Wednesday.

The union stated that LenkaBula had been involved in disreputable conduct, including disregarding bargaining processes.

Findings against Unisa

Mosia found in his report that there were tensions between LenkaBula and the now-dismissed registrar Professor Steward Mothata, which negatively affected Unisa. 

Mothata is fighting his dismissal in court. Before his dismissal, Mothata was the secretary of the council. He was fired after he allegedly raised concerns that the council was an illegitimate structure because it did not reach a quorum after the resignation of several councillors. 

This was at the height of the council’s deliberations on how to respond to Mosia’s report.

The council members pleaded with Nzimande to not disband it — arguing that the challenges faced by Unisa had occurred before their tenure. 

Mnisi said Nzimande was satisfied that Mosia’s report revealed financial and other maladministration of a serious nature, which affected the effective functioning of Unisa.

“The report reveals that the appointment of an administrator is in the best interest of Unisa and of higher education in an open and democratic society,” Mnisi stated.

He said the ministerial task team conducted an independent review of Unisa’s “mission drift” — which had massive implications for the financial sustainability and future of the university.

“The MTT also made a rigorous assessment of how the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its associative disruptions and shifts will affect many aspects of the academic mission, academic programmes, markets and operating model of Unisa,” Mnisi said.

Daily Maverick has learnt that Nzimande did not make any references to LenkaBula in his letter to Maboa, but detailed findings of misconduct by her management committee (ManCom). 

Two insiders told Daily Maverick that the Unisa council would challenge Nzimande’s intentions to place the university under administration. 

Asked what is to happen to Mosia’s recommendations about LenkaBula and her team, Mnisi said on Tuesday evening that the administrator will implement Mosia’s recommendation.

‘ManCom misconduct’

In his letter to Maboa, Nzimande wrote that Mosia found that ManCom was not working as a coherent team. 

“They lack the maturity required to effectively manage a complex university. Furthermore, the council allowed the situation between the VC and the Registrar (now former) to continue for more than a year, seriously impacting the work of the university,” Nzimande wrote.

He further stated that Mosia’s report found: 

  • Many gross violations of the supply chain management policy, financial irregularities (tender manipulation, overpayments and double payment for the same work, backdating of contracts, tender splitting) and possible fraud;
  • That ManCom knowingly took irregular financial decisions that had and have far-reaching consequences for Unisa. These included ManCom’s decision to implement selective salary adjustments to academic staff and some portion of the support staff, and the laptop scheme, which amounted to more than R87-million;
  • That the council failed in its fiduciary duties by condoning the financial irregularities committed by the management; and
  • That the implementation of salary increases to the value of R90-million implemented during September 2021 for certain categories of staff was in violation of ManCom’s delegations and governance processes.

“The net effect of this irregularity amounted to R176-million and escalation of the HR cost to a staggering 78% of total expenditure, after an increase had to be given to other categories of staff who were initially not part of the impromptu decision,” Nzimande wrote.

He said that Mosia revealed that the council granted approval for the extension of the staff complement in LenkaBula’s office, which amounted to a duplication of existing functions, at a cost of an additional R14-million.

“The report finds evidence of three personnel in the office of the VC who received substantial backpay following backdated upgrades to October 2007 amounting to R2.9-million.”

In addition, Mosia discovered that there were a number of systemic and structural challenges that point to the dysfunctionality of Mothata’s office, particularly as it relates to student administration, leaving students frustrated. 

Nzimande wrote that Mosia also found that Unisa’s failure to protect students’ data had led to their exploitation by fraudulent tutors. DM

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