IN a damning report, the governing council of South Africa’s largest public distance-learning institution, the University of South Africa (UNISA), has been severely criticised for its lack of good governance and failure to safeguard the academic future of the institution. The report also strongly suggests the prosecution of individuals who have conducted themselves improperly.
“Council is the root cause of the problems at UNISA,” states the report of the ministerial task team on the Review of the University of South Africa (UNISA). It calls on the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, to probe financial impropriety and mismanagement at the largest open distance-learning institution in Africa.
It blasts the university council for failing in its vital responsibility to safeguard the academic enterprise, the heart of the institution, and the raison d’être for a university’s very existence.
The findings were described by an academic as a scathing indictment of the council, which served during the tenure of the former UNISA vice-chancellor, Professor Mandla Makhanya, who left office on 29 April 2021.
On 2 September 2021, UNISA inaugurated its first woman vice-chancellor, Professor Puleng LenkaBula. She is also the first black woman to lead the institution known as Africa’s only mega-university.
But it has been a baptism of fire for her as she sets about stamping her authority while cleaning up the legacy issues. Such issues have manifested themselves appallingly in this report.
“Academic staff at UNISA are stretched to the limit, with insufficient staff numbers in proportion to the rising numbers of students. In addition, a huge number of academic staff vacancies persist. As a result, there is inadequate student support,” the report finds.
The report is critical throughout of the flouting of financial regulations according to established governance principles, which has damaged the academic standing and administrative competence of UNISA as a credible and reputable higher education institution.
The report calls for an urgent investigation by a body with forensic expertise to unravel the extent to which the council has failed to engender an enabling and ethical culture befitting a knowledge institution.
Instead, according to the report, there is a pervasive culture of corruption, impunity, conflict, fear, and intimidation at UNISA.
Alarmingly, the report documents a deliberate and systematic plan, over a sustained period, to establish a corrupt network that has resulted in institutional capture. In addition, it added that there is a culture of impunity deeply embedded in the institution.
The report, which has not been officially released, was handed to Nzimande on 30 August 2021.
‘Too big to fail’
University World News has seen a copy of the 119-page report, compiled under task team chairperson Dr Vincent Maphai.
The independent task team was appointed by Nzimande to assess the mandate of UNISA as an open and distance higher learning education institution.
The other members of the team are Dr John Volmink, chairman of the Umalusi council and former pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Natal, (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal); Professor Louis Molamu, former UNISA registrar and higher education consultant; Nonkululeko Gobodo, former chief executive officer of Nkululeko Leadership Consulting (who served until she was seconded to the office of the Auditor-General); and Professor Brenda Gourley, previous vice-chancellor of both the UK Open University and the University of Natal before it was renamed the University of KwaZulu-Natal).
On why the task team was appointed, Nzimande expressed doubts about the institution and added that UNISA was “too big to fail”, given its size, not only in South Africa, but on the African continent.
In terms of its mandate, the task team was asked to examine contextual and institutional factors that impact upon the current challenges facing UNISA.
It was required to advise on the relevance of UNISA’s strategies and plans to policy objectives in higher education, on the institution’s mandate as an Open Distance e-Learning (ODeL) institution, the appropriateness and compatibility of the current model and structure to its mandate, operations and efficacy, and whether its ICT systems are geared towards the rapid advances in digital technologies, among others.
“It is evident that council has dismally failed UNISA. It has not equipped itself, or the [management committee], with the range of skills and competencies necessary to provide the appropriate strategic guidance and direction to a modern ODeL in the 21st century,” according to the report.
“Addressing the numerous transgressions and failures of the council is a necessary but not complete condition for the revival of UNISA,” the report said.
One of the essential responsibilities of a governing body is to protect the reputation of the institution, but the report lamented the failure to ensure a robust, modern and secure ICT infrastructure, which has not only been damaging to UNISA’s reputation with respect to administrative competence, but also to its academic standing.
Furthermore, the task team found that academics had been hampered in their efforts to improve the student support they are able to provide and their ability to engage with what it means to be an online university.
In a warning which spells a gloomy outlook for the institution, the report observes that academics are unlikely to want to join such an institution – and those already in the institution are more likely to depart in these circumstances.
UNISA’s current strategies are found to be reasonable but not sufficiently credible, and its plans do not cover all aspects of a modern ODeL institution, nor do they build on the institution’s strengths and address its weaknesses, according to the report.
Lapses in strategic areas
A glaring absence is the failure to seize the opportunity inherent in its significant presence in teacher education (which is also a national priority).
Another significant UNISA lapse is its failure to prioritise areas of focus, most notably in ICT infrastructure. While its strategies are of concern, an even more substantial problem is their implementation – or rather, the lack thereof.
“In short, UNISA Council and Mancom [management committee] have failed to execute the mission of the university through clear and effective strategic planning and implementation.”
The report identifies a range of multifaceted challenges facing the university, considering the enormous and dramatic changes in higher education over the past 20 years.
Of great significance to the sector, particularly impacting on UNISA, was the decision by the late former Minister of Education Professor Kader Asmal to merge tertiary institutions.
In 2004, UNISA merged with Technikon South Africa and incorporated the distance-learning part of Vista University.
While mergers are challenging to manage at the best of times, this merger, according to the report, was complicated – and put enormous strain on every part of the institution.
UNISA’s student body increased from 263,559 in 2003 to 375,851 in 2021. Clearly, the university’s growth was not “a simplistic tale of progression”.
In its concluding remarks, the report says that, although UNISA’s multiple strategies are valid overall, they do not match up to the demands of the current environment, nor are they as ambitious as they could be.
“UNISA should be a national centre of excellence in ODeL. It could and should be a major presence in the OER [open educational resources] movement, nationally and internationally. It is neither.”
But the ministerial task team concludes that UNISA should “stick to its knitting”.
In a statement, the current chairperson of the UNISA council, Mashukudu James Maboa, said he was unaware of the report, and that, “It is not the policy of the university to engage with the minister or the department through the media.”
Nzimande’s office did not respond to a request for comment.