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HomeEducationMinister Blade Nzimande meeting with Fort Hare Council

Minister Blade Nzimande meeting with Fort Hare Council

Full Statement: unedited.

Opening remarks by the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Dr Blade Nzimande on the occasion of the meeting with the University of Fort Hare Council, 23 June 2023

Acting Chairperson of the University of Fort Hare Council, Dr Siphokazi Koyana and members of the University Council
Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu
The Director-General, Dr Nkosinathi Sishi
DDG for University Education, Dr Marcia Socikwa
My Advisors and Ministry Staff

Greetings

Allow me to extend my appreciation to the members of the Council for availing themselves to meet with me today.

In my visit to the Alice campus of the University of Fort Hare earlier in the year, I indicated that I would like to have a follow-up visit to meet specifically with the Council to discuss matters relating to the well-being of this University.

From the outset, and pertinent to the purposes of this meeting with UFH Council, I must indicate that I am deeply troubled by a wide range of problems faced by a number of our higher education institutions in recent months about governance, administration, leadership and business continuity. They include UNISA, UCT, MUT, VUT and Fort Hare, amongst others.

To ensure that Government exercises its proper role, I have directed the Department to put all these institutions under a watching brief, using all the available instruments provided for in the Higher Education Act. This entails close and regularly monitoring, and all interventions required.

I wish to remind Council that universities must fulfil their mandates in line with the core principles for good governance set out in the Higher Education Act (1997), the White Paper on HE Transformation (1997) and National Plan for PSET (2019). This entails the principles of:

Equity and redress;
Efficiency and effectiveness;
Democratization;
Quality and Impact;
Academic freedom and institutional autonomy;
Accountability and transparency.
Government policy provides for a coherent legal framework within which we expect all our universities to promote their distinctive mandates, institutional plans, including, if you like, theories of change. We measure you against how you hold up against these principles.

This is a very crucial point that must not be lost. It is a core framework provided for by South Africa’s democratic dispensation that must guide you on both understanding our many challenges and how to resolve them.

I say this because I am deeply concerned that we are getting many worrisome indications that in many good efforts being made by UFH to tackle its many challenges, it stands the risks of reproducing the very same problems it seeks to resolve.

Recently, we have received a rising tide of correspondence with numerous complaints about the conduct of the university administration and, most recently, about University Council itself. The range of complaints seem to point to serious concerns that UFH is both detracting from and selectively adhering to the principles of good governance outlined above.

I have to remind Council that its duties are exercised on the back of a long and rich tradition that began with struggle against apartheid and the transition to democracy, that inscribed these principles as foundational to how we govern and lead our institutions. The above principles are indivisible. They must apply to all. And they must be applied consistently by Council, Management, academics, students and workers, etc.

Let me make a few pertinent examples emerging from the correspondences we have received. You cannot sustain a claim to stand for clean administration yet refusing the subject the process of doing so to proper scrutiny.

Equally, it is completely unacceptable to embrace the principle of ‘institutional autonomy’ yet ignore the requirements of public accountability. Similarly, we cannot tolerate a climate of fear on a public campus whilst proclaiming the right to academic freedom. Simply put, you cannot selectively pick and choose the rights you like, whilst ignoring those you do not embrace.

In the next few minutes, the DHET senior officials, led by our Director-General, will present a overview and assessment of the results of its own monitoring (as an outcome of the Administrator’s Report of 2019). It will bear witness to a rising tide of concerns which, if not addressed in a constructive and honest manner by this Council, will bear serious consequences for the future of this historic university.

As we raise these concerns, I want to disabuse anyone from attempting to construe this as an intervention to give cover to the fight against corruption. That is disingenuous and pure poppycock.

Let me be very clear: there is zero disagreement over the fact that corruption and malfeance must be stamped out. To the extent that you are doing that, it is commendable.

But it is equally crucial that new acts of misconduct, maladministration and unlawful activities are not committed – in the name of fighting crime. At issue here is not the fight against corruption and other malpractices, but how this is conducted.

You cannot fight corruption and, in the process, end up violate the rights of others, abuse your power and conduct yourself outside of a proper system of accountability. It is simply unacceptable.

There is no place for authoritarianism in universities. I wish to remind Council that the principle of democratization is a core principle of how we must govern and manage our universities.

The only feasible way to resolve difficult challenges is by an inclusive stakeholder model of governance, and this of necessity allows for voices of dissent, disagreement and dialogue in a peaceful manner inviolable of the rights of all stakeholders.

Chairperson

I have been receiving a number of correspondences that raises serious concerns that I require Council to deal with in a manner that corrects any wrongs committed and ensures that the principles of good governance are upheld by all, especially university management.

I will briefly highlight some of the issues as contained in the letters which I received in order to further reflect on the seriousness of the situation that confront this Council.

1. UFH Audit Committee correspondence

On the 20th June 2023, I received a correspondence from the Chairperson of the Audit, Risk and Information Technology Committee of Council. The Audit Committee raise with me six (6) issues relating to governance matters that required urgent attention at the University.

Now, this letter from the Audit Committee follows what they Committee regards as “as instances of last resort following various attempts to address the matters internally within the University and especially through Council, all of which did not yield positive results.

A letter was then attached for my information which was sent to Council to address them. According to the Committee, there was no response to the letter.

According to the Committee, the failure of Council to address these matters led to a stalemate within Council as demonstrated by its inability to agree on an agenda of a special Council Meeting leading to a collapse of at least two meetings, with the prospect of the next scheduled meeting suffering the same fate.

The Committee has raised the following issues:

1. Unlawful cyber surveillance and investigations against members of Council by the Vice Chancellor or Management following various “whistle-blower” emails that were sent to Members of Council.
2. Council receiving information from whistle-blowers accusing Management of wrong-doing and the inability of Management to address these through the University Whistle-blower Policy.
3. Inability to provide the Investigation Reports by Management to the Audit, Risk and Information Technology Committee and Council. According to the Committee, it seems that Management’s explanation for its refusal to provide the reports is that the reports have been submitted to the SIU, and that no one is now permitted to see the reports.
4. Lack of report by Management on the Academic Qualification Fraud which has been playing itself out in the media, without either the University or the SIU agreeing to officially releasing the report without Council’s knowledge. Accordingly, these leaks undermine the ongoing investigations and compromise the reputation of the University.
5. Security Plan and Costs – On 30 March 2023, Council asked Management to develop, with assistance of experts, if necessary, a security plan. Despite numerous requests to Management to provide a security plan, and the breakdown of security and investigations costs so far was never provided.
6. Reputational Damage – according to the Committee, the University has suffered unmitigated reputational damage putting to question its academic credibility. Accordingly, this has led to the withdrawal of some of the funding commitments by sponsors citing concerns about the reputational risk. According to the Committee, various requests to Management to handle these matters with due diligence, care, and urgency, the bad publicity continues unabated.

In its conclusion, the letter from the Committee suggest that Council is effectively on a live deadlock now.

In order to resolve all of these critical issues, the Committee believe that only an independent widespread investigation can get to the bottom of these issues, and close the gaps in the University systems and processes.

Lastly, the letter states that members of ARITC and member of Council, are unable to exercise their fiduciary duties under these circumstances.

They therefore escalated the matter to me as the Minister as the last resort.

2. Letter from the President of Convocation:

The letter from the President of Convocation raised eight (8) points of concern. This issues includes:

1. University failure to effectively engage Alumni Community in addressing the fraudulent admissions and qualifications scandal at the institution which directly impacts its constituency.
2. Continuous negative publicity of the University due to the afore-mentioned allegations of corruption in the admission processes for postgraduate students at our esteemed institution.
3. Councils lack of responsiveness to numerous letter from the convocation dating back to March 2021, expressing concerns and seeking accountability.
4. The Convocation hold a view that there seems to exist a growing antipathy towards the Convocation Executive by the University.
5. The university is currently facing several litigation cases by disgruntled students, indicating a breakdown in the institution’s administrative processes.
6. University declining research Output, potentially impacting the university’s standing in academic circles and research funding opportunities.
7. Multiple reports from staff and students suggest a toxic teaching and learning environment on campus, affecting the well-being and academic performance of both students and staff.
8. Concerns have been raised regarding the disproportionate allocation of security spending in favour of management rather than prioritizing the safety of students and university property.

Having raised these issues, the UFH Convocation requests my Department of Higher Education and Training to initiate an independent investigation into the allegations of corruption in the admission processes for postgraduate students and issues raised above.

The scope of the investigation should encompass the entire postgraduate admission process, including the evaluation of applications, selection criteria, interview processes, the institution’s Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) policy and any other aspects that may be implicated.

3. National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Correspondence

On the 15 June 2023, I also received a letter from the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) who expressed their extreme concerned about the escalating developments at the University of Fort Hare (UFH).

NTEU’s concern is primarily around the Office of the Vice-Chancellor and how the management and governance structures are handling the corruption, mismanagement of finances and irregular expenditure.

They are also gravely concerned about the gross human rights abuses and sheer disregard for human dignity that is revealing itself under the guise of investigations of said corrupt activities.

NTEU then make an example of their own President, Mr Xolani Tom, who was recently subjected to kidnapping and torture for seven hours by alleged members of the SAPS. They also allege that more individuals known to the Union with links to the university who have also been subjected to this treatment.

We have become aware of a number of other citizens who have fallen victim to the same treatment, all of whom are linked, in some way or another, to the university.

Lastly the Union state states that are worried about the way in which the Vice-Chancellor and his team are going about dealing with corruption at the institution.

NTEU is fully in agreement that corruption must be tackled head-on, but the process to get there is as important as the outcome, because we run the risk of perpetrating acts of corruption in the name of tackling it.

They are also concerned about more and more stakeholders within the sector who are kept at arms’ length regarding the work of management.

Wayforward

Chairperson, even if some of these allegations can be contested or weighed against other facts, it will still demonstrate that important sections of your stakeholder base, and indeed members of this very Council, feel aggrieved and alienated. You cannot simply dismiss this as it will not go away.

Moreover, there has to be accountability, and for wrongs to be corrected, and importantly, for a process of internal mediation and reconciliation to be put into place. I hold Council individually and collectively responsible for having to address these allegations in an impartial, objective and competent manner.

To reiterate, corruption undermines the government’s objectives by diverting away funds meant to develop our institutions for personal enrichment. In order for the fight against corruption and malfeasance to succeed, it must be, and seen to be, a collective effort of all stakeholders; and should therefore adopt an open, transparent and inclusive approach. This includes engagements with labour and student leaders.

It is also important to mention an important point made in the Assessor’s Report which seems to have been lost: to strike a balance between ensuring good governance and accountability on the one hand, and on the other hand protecting the brand of the University.

You will appreciate that once a brand is ruined or sullied, it will take several years to rebuild it, long after the exit of the council.

As a department, we also support the ongoing investigations at the university. These investigations must run their course, and I will continue supporting you in this regard, but the investigations do not suspend the requirement that Council and its committees such as ARC must exercise full oversight over all decisions, including use of public funds, in all aspects of the running of the university – with no exceptions. That is non-negiotable.

Council must establish – through means demonstrably independent from Management – whether illegal surveillance and spying activities have been carried out using the platforms and resources of the University, and a report must be forwarded to my office in this regard.

This includes the accusation that ‘security vetting’ is used as a veil to conduct unlawful surveillance and spy activities driving fear into members of the university community. I wish to remind you that this would be a criminal offence. I have spoken to the Minister of Police to get to the bottom of this and based on any findings, approach the criminal justice system to ensure accountability.

Council must adopt a stance that is reassuring to all and deter any inclination towards building factions or alienation. Council must exist to stabilise the university and functionality of this great institution.

With that Chair, I will hand over to the DG Sishi and his team to highlight some of the key issues that we wish to engage on this morning.

I look forward to a fruitful engagement.

Thank you!

Issued by: Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation

Caleb Tayi
Caleb Tayi
I'm a critical reader and a lover of words. As the ECToday Editor my job is to polish and refine a story or an article, check facts, spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.
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