Department of Higher Education and Training on Quarter 1 performance, with Minister & Deputy Minister

Higher Education, Science and Technology

23 August 2017
Chairperson: Ms C September (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Minister of Higher Education of Training provided the Portfolio Committee with an overview of Departmental highlights for the first quarter of the 2017/18 financial year, with particular emphasis on the resolution of challenges at the University of Zululand and with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. He also disclosed that a draft national plan for post-school education and training was being discussed internally in the Department, and would be consulted with the Committee before it was finalised.

The Department reported on its first quarter performance, which sparked lively debate from Members of the Committee. A key issue raising concern was an incident of irregular expenditure involving an amount of around R300 000, where the official concerned was still at the Department while investigations continued. They criticised delayed financial planning which affected policy implementation. The lack of urgency in the Department was holding back the provision of skills to support the economy and provide funding for students. Another issue was the backlog in the issue of certificates by Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges. Members also asked why the Department of Basic Education (DBE) had cancelled the subject of agriculture, and urged DHET to engage with the DBE to spark more interest in education on agriculture in rural and urban areas. The importance of education as a tool to uplift people from poverty was a strong sentiment shared by the Department and the Portfolio Committee alike. 

Meeting report

Minister’s Overview

Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, said he would have to leave the meeting early, as he had a Cabinet meeting to attend. He stressed the importance of compliance and the critical need to achieve the targeted goals of Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). Some of the Department’s performance highlights were:

  • The policy on central applications services had been approved for implementation, which was a milestone in terms of introducing nationally centralised application services.
  • A draft national plan for post-school education and training was being discussed internally in the Department, and would be consulted with the Committee before it was finalised.
  • It had consulted the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) on the draft revision of the national skills development plan, which had been completed two weeks prior to the meeting and would be published for public comment in due course.
  • Additional funding for administration and system improvement allocated to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme for the rollout of the student central model was in process, and was being closely monitored by the Department.

The Chairperson invited Members to put questions to the Minister before his early departure

Discussion

Mr M Mbatha (EFF) raised issues related to teacher unions, student body representatives and unfair dismissals at the University of Zululand.

Ms J Kilian (ANC) asked about NSFAS, and referred to oversight trips over the past few months which had seen implementation challenges regarding the new student-central model, due to a supposed underestimation of the capacity required. The question was whether NSFAS could move forward, and whether the interventions by the DHET would prevent situations where students were required to suspend their studies due to the lack of access to funding.

Ms H Bucwa (DA) asked for clarity on the fees commission report.

Mr C Kekana (ANC) commented on research done by the University of Johannesburg (UJ) regarding the fact that half of the South African population was living in poverty. The area of providing skills training and education was important to improve the livelihood of the nation. Regarding NSFAS, the institution lacked an organogram for better performance management to operate in an efficient way.

Minister’s Response

The Minister addressed the problems at the University of Zululand. He affirmed that resolution of the challenges had improved during the past nine-months. The oversight visit conducted by the Portfolio Committee was commended by the Minister. Engagements with the President of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), as well as the provincial and regional leadership of the unions, had been prioritised to help students return to class. Management at the University of Zululand had not engaged with stakeholders, but an option to appoint an independent assessor was being considered by the DHET. However, preference in resolving the issue would be given to the Council at the University.

Mr Mduduzi Manana, Deputy Minister, DHET, added further details in respect of the University of Zululand issue, and said that through the engagements the Minister had had with the Council, attention had been given to the Department in support of the management and the Council to accomplish objectives. Efficient systems and the enhancement of structural deficiencies was a priority. The DHET had reported on the importance of programmes to produce skills, and human resource capacity was in the process of deliberation by the Council. Thereafter, the Minister would consider what support should be given to the institution.

The Minister referred to infinite “issues with HDIs (Historically Disadvantaged Individuals)” at many higher education institutions, aside from the University of the Western Cape. He also referred to the case of Ms Josephine Naicker, the Chief Financial Officer who had been fired by the University and on the grounds of alleged corrupt administration.

The Minister said he had had an engagement with the board of NSFAS the previous week. The DHET had been misled by management regarding the implementation of the student system. It had sent volunteers to deal with the backlog, but the challenge had proved overwhelming. A further challenge faced had been with students refusing to sign NSFAS student loans. Funds could not be allocated without these documents at universities and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges. The capacity to handle NSFAS challenges was limited. TVET colleges lacked a registrar, which hindered the oversight of the colleges.

NSFAS had appointed a new chief executive officer (CEO) to take office on 1 September 2017. However, all backlogs were to be dealt with before the month ended. On a positive note, in 2016 all NSFAS students accepted at a university or college had been paid for. However, R5 billion had been taken from the National Skills Fund to pay for this. NSFAS would have a better performance in 2018. Furthermore, the oversight role of the Portfolio Committee had been encouraged.

The Minister addressed the question of the fees commission. He said it was the place of either the President and/or the Ministry of Justice to deal with the matter, as it was not within his authority to request certain documents. In 2018, more certainty would be given on the matter to assist poor students. The DHET was covering all angles, but it was the responsibility of the NSFAS commission to take the lead in implementation. The Director General (DG) of Higher Education and the DG of Finance would co-operate to engage with stakeholders after the Commission on NSFAS to ensure targets were met speedily.

The Chairperson thanked the Minister for his attendance and permitted his departure from the meeting.

 

First Quarter Performance: DHET presentation

Mr Gwebinkundla Qonde, Director General (DG), DHET, said that a detailed predetermined report would to be presented, alongside the finalisation of the financial report for the financial year. The Minister had approved the Department’s revised strategic plan for the five years ending March 2020 and the annual performance plan for (APP) 2017/18 presented in February. For the 2017/18 financial year, the Department had 86 targets which covered the direct outputs of the development programmes of the department.

Mr Reineth Mgiba, Director: Strategic Planning: DHET, reported on the six budget programmes of the DHET: Administration; Planning, Policy and Strategy; University Education; Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET); Skills Development and Community Education and Training (CET). In addition to the 86 targets, there were 34 systemic targets encompassing universities, TVET colleges, CET colleges and Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs). For the quarter under review there had been 33 outputs shared amongst the budget programmes of the Department, of which 25 (75%) had been achieved.

Programme 1:

This programme ensured efficient management and administration of the Department. The programme had 12 outputs for the 2017/17 financial year. Five outputs were due for completion in the first quarter and four had been completed (75%). The development of a system for tracking invoices from creditors to pay them within 30 days had not been finalised in time.

Programme 2:

The purpose of this programme was to provide strategic direction in the development, implementation and monitoring of Departmental policies, and the human resources development strategy for South Africa. This programme had 12 targets for the 2017/18 financial year. A total of seven outputs were due in the first quarter, and all seven had been achieved. The first draft list of occupations would be ready in the first week of December 2017. The development of a policy framework on disability was due for completion and approval by the Minister on 31 March 2018, and a four-year implementation strategy had been developed. The annual report on the implementation of social inclusion in Post-School Education and Training (PSET) was due for completion and approval by 31 March 2018.

The first quarterly report on implementation had been compiled as planned, and covered one university (University of Pretoria) in attempts to achieve social cohesion within the institution. The annual report on the open learning policy in PSET was due for completion and approval on 31 March 2018. The development of curriculum content, teaching/learning resources and assessment tasks was in process. A diagnostic test engaging TVET colleges for the identification of areas of interest was due to commence. The annual report on career development services was due for completion and approval by the DG on 31 March 2018. Cabinet had approved the national policy on Integrated Career Development Services in March 2017. The annual statistics on PSET was due by 31 March 2018. The design of the Management Information System for public community was due for finalisation by 31 March 2018 and feedback was currently being awaited from CET colleges.

Programme 3:

The purpose of this programme was to develop and coordinate policy and regulatory frameworks for an effective and efficient university education system, and it provided financial support to universities, the the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and the National Institute for Higher Education (NIHE). There were 20 targets for the 2017/18 financial year. Four outputs were due in the first quarter, and three were completed. The project plan to develop a policy framework on collaboration between professional bodies, government departments and quality councils had not been finalised. An amendment of the NSFAS Act was due for approval by the Minister by 31 March 2018. Draft amendments would be discussed at the next meeting at the end of August or early in September.

Programme 4:

The purpose of this programme was to plan, develop, implement, monitor, maintain and evaluate national policy programmes, assessment practices and systems for TVET colleges. The programme had 28 targets for the 2017/18 financial year. 11 outputs were due in the first quarter, six had been achieved (55%), and three whad beenere completed after the planned timeframe. The draft policy on performance reporting for TVET colleges had not been achieved. The development of a draft policy for administration/ management of student administration for TVET Colleges was also not completed as planned.

The draft revised funding framework, based on the Ministerial Committee, was being developed. The target of a draft framework as at June 2017 was still a work in progress. A draft departmental policy framework on TVET qualifications had been prepared, but had not been consulted as planned -- the first consultation would take place at the research colloquium planned for 12 September 2017. A report on the conduct of public TVET College examination centres during national examinations and assessments for the 2016 academic year had not been completed within the timeframe, but had since been completed and approved by the Director-General. The report on the certification backlog was not completed within the planned timeframe, but had since been completed and approved by the Director-General.

Programme 5:

The purpose of the programme was to promote and monitor the national skills development strategy, as well as to develop a skills development policy and regulatory framework for an effective skills development system. The programme had eight targets for the 2017/18 financial year. The three targets due for completion in the first quarter had all been achieved. The review of the skills development plan was due for completion and approval by the DG on 31 March 2018.

Programme 6:

The purpose of this programme was to plan, develop, implement, monitor, maintain and evaluate national policy, programme assessment practices and systems for community education and training. The programme had a total of six targets for the 2017/18 financial year. Three outputs were due for completion in the first quarter, of which two had been achieved. The review of the funding framework for CET colleges was due for completion and approval by the Minister by 30 September 2017. The development of the draft funding framework for CET colleges could not be completed as planned.

Mr Theuns Tredoux, Chief Financial Officer: DHET, reported on the financial section and budget performance of the presentation, and said that the overall spending for the first quarter was 41.3% (including direct charges). The average for normal operational activities, including compensation of employees, was 22.63%. Expenditure was measured each month to ensure the Department stayed within the budget. The highest spending trends had been experienced by Programme Three due to the subsidy payments to universities and NSFAS. One incident of irregular expenditure had been identified and was under investigation.

Discussion

Ms J Kilian (ANC) raised a question about the incident of irregular expenditure, and asked for a clearer indication of what action had been taken and what internal control systems had been implemented to prevent a similar occurrence, as well as the consequence management after the incident. Regarding Programme Four, she commented on the critical issues which had to be followed to improve the system. She criticised the Department for viewing targets as completing “tick-box exercises”. For example, delayed financial planning affected policy implementation. She requested further information on teaching and learner support, as well as time management frames to achieve certain targets. She strongly condemned the lack of urgency in the Department, as this delayed the provision of skills to support the economy and provide funding for students, as well as hindering the delivery of the mandate of the Department. In response to the skills development in Programmes Four and Five, she said that an audit should be conducted in relation to the infrastructure development.

Mr E Siwela (ANC) in regard to Programme Four, asked whether the backlog had been cleared. The reporting for TVET colleges had not been completed as planned due to capacity issues, so he asks wanted to know when the programme would be attended to. He sought clarity on whether the 161 technically non-compliant centres were in rural or urban areas.

Mr M Mbatha (EFF) posed a question on the scarcity of space. He asked whether the DG could improve the conditions of service, especially regarding the recruitment environment. The recruitment process was a secure environment, but should be better protected to authenticate qualifications for potential employers. Further, as the aim of TVET was to succeed, the most funds should be allocated to TVET colleges. However, post-graduate students remained unemployed. A certificate ensured a legitimate future for the graduate. However, a draft policy set to align those with a TVET qualification remained just a draft, with no urgency for re-engineering the sector. Many students with TVET qualifications remained unemployed.

Ms S Mchunu (ANC) requested clarity on whether the tasks due had been achieved by the due date. She pointed to irregularities in the production of the list of occupations document in Programme Two, which had not been produced every two years, as mandated. Senior Departmental officials had not been present at meetings at which issues relating their respective departments had been discussed. In response to the review of the skills development programme, she asked why a document had been returned to the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) after approval by the Cabinet. Further, a draft funding framework on CET budget planning had not been produced, therefore a CET target had been unmet. She restated the importance of working with urgency.

Mr C Kekana (ANC) asked why the Department of Basic Education (DBE) had cancelled the subject of agriculture at a time of environmental cultivation. He asked the DG of Higher Education to engage with the DG of Basic Education to spark more interest in education on agriculture in rural and urban areas.

The Chairperson asked why reasons had not been provided for targets which had not been achieved. Clarity was needed on the investigation of the irregular expenditure, and why the internal audit team was not present at the meeting.

Mr Tredoux said that the internal auditor was attending a DBE meeting in Parliament.

The Chairperson expressed her disapproval. The internal auditor was to provide clarity on the investigation, and steps that had been developed to prevent further occurrences. She requested information on why the person(s) under investigation had not been suspended. The presentation of the Department lacked detailed quarter-to-quarter measures, and this affected the financing of the Department.

Ms Kilian asks for clarity on information communication technology (ICT) in Programme One, and when the new plan would be implemented. A concern relating to the delay in the list of occupations due date could pose difficulties for financial planning. Regarding the social inclusion of PSET, she asked why the University of Pretoria was the only institution included in the plan. The impact of the PSET programme could not be tracked, as a similar system for TVET colleges had not been developed, and she asked when this would be done. She referred to the 80/20 principle, and encouraged the Department to improve its planning, as this would assist in achieving targets.

Mr Qonde proposed that in response to the non-achievement of targets, it would be best to provide a written response to the questions raised. On the incident of irregular expenditure, an official at the Department had acted above his/her mandate. The DG had sought to withhold the salary of the person involved, but the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) had advised against this as the service provided by the accused had already been completed and could not go unpaid. Therefore, the transaction had been sent for investigation. The transaction had not been approved by the DG, the CFO or the DDG in the respective branches.

Mr Tredoux confirmed the statements made by the DG. The controls in place to prevent the occurrence of irregular expenditure had assisted in detecting the unapproved transaction. However, despite the controls that were in place, the accused had worked independently to approve the transaction, without permission from persons of authority. Control systems could not have prevented the transaction from taking place, but had aided in the identification of the issue. The Minister and the DG were both “furious” about the issue, as it had placed the Department in a bad light.

The Chairperson asked where the accused person was.

Mr Qonde responded that the person was still within the Department.

The Chairperson pointed to the recklessness of this decision, and asked the Department why the accused had been given another opportunity to steal money.

Mr Qonde said that internal processes of accountability and labour relations had to be followed before further action could be taken. The internal systems of the Department had detected the matter and there were due processes to be followed in dealing with it.

Mr Kekana what the irregularity had been, and what action had been taken thus far. People performed badly but received performance awards at the end of the year, so this incident should not be taken lightly. The accused should be aware that his/her job was now on the line.

Ms Kilian said that in certain instances, immediate dismissal was permissible. She requested information on whether fraud was involved and whether the person was a regular service provider to the Department, and whether the service provider would be barred from providing future services to the Department. Had the person been placed on suspension?

Mr Qonde said that the preliminary work had been done to understand the nature of the problem. The matter had been referred to the internal audit department, and a report was in the process of being produced. The official accused remained within the Department. He appealed to the Committee to allow the process to unfold, as per South African law. The matter had been identified, the investigation was in process and the accused could not be judged until all processes had been followed.

Mr Siwela stated that too many people in government tended to “get away with murder”. He appealed to the Director General to speed up the process. He asked for clarity on the service that had been provided and why it was possible for a service provider to provide a service without an order being received from the Department prior to the transaction.

Mr Kekana agreed that the process should unfold according to the dictates of the law, but stressed the importance of a time frame to avoid seeing the issue “fade away”.

Ms Mchunu requested information on the total of irregular expenditure detected.

Mr Tredoux said it was approximately R300 000.

The Chairperson said that insufficient information regarding the case remained an issue. Within one week, the Committee would like clarity on the exact amount detected and what steps were to be taken to deal with the accused.

Mr Qonde said that the official in question was not denying the incident, but his/her account of the transaction could not be verified without due investigation. He affirmed that the report would be provided.

The Chairperson allowed the meeting to proceed.

Mr Qonde said that it was important to re-engineer the entire system of the TVEC sector. Regarding concerns on examinations, the payment of markers and moderators, as well as issues pertaining to certification, these were being solved through the systemic development of standard operating procedures for examination processes, which covered the country as a whole. The principals of TVET colleges would be held as chief examination officers in the respective colleges. Claim forms had had inadequate information, which delayed the process. Data from the 161 examination centres which have been found to be non-compliant, had been rejected by the system due to contradictions in the data. He mentioned the importance of ensuring all examination centres had basic infrastructure and the adequate capacity to capture and verify data at the centres. The system was being re-engineered.

The regulation of infrastructure was not an issue -- the problem lay with the funding of infrastructure. The infrastructure grant to universities was not sufficient, but there was no allocation of funds to TVET colleges. Along with the Treasury, a system was in the process of being developed to regulate the funding of programmes at TVET colleges. TVET colleges lacked structures for project management of infrastructure projects. This was a key challenge that was currently being attended to by the Department.

In response to the question raised on IT systems regarding the processing of examinations and certification, a system was being developed parallel to the system already in place at SETA and Umalusi, to customize the system and avoid a repetition of similar mistakes.

Regarding the other questions posed, the officials would be consulted and a final report would be provided within two weeks in response to the targets that had not been achieved.

Ms Lulu Sizani, Special Advisor: DHET, said that measures were being put in place to address security risks. Regarding the priority of ICT areas, the connectivity of all 50 TVET colleges to join the Samrand Network was in process. Various audit findings by the Auditor General (AG) regarding security issues were being investigated. Regarding ICT programmes, the central project management office within the Department would integrate and manage the project, and the rest of the programme would be implemented over a five-year period.

Dr Nkosinathi Sishi, Deputy Director General (DDG): Planning Policy and Strategy (PPS), reported that the list of occupations in high demand -- an official publication of occupations in high demand in 2014 and 2016 -- had in fact been published. The process reported on in this quarter had been the progress report of the 2018 document.

Mr Zirk Joubert, Chief Director (CD): Financial Planning, reported that in terms of the review funding framework, the quarter one output had a requirement of 50% and quarter two had a requirement of 100%. The Minster had appointed a Ministerial review committee which contained comprehensive recommendations and had been gazetted for public comment. Within 14 days the option for public comment would be closed, and the recommendations would be contextualized into a framework that would lead to the creation of funding forms. The Ministerial review committee process had been an 18-month long project, making it a timely process to reach the eventual implementation phase. National Treasury bids had been submitted, so the Department was well aware of what the system required. The high-level funding framework and the funding norms would conceptualize the detail of the application of the funds. The costing element and the application process were two different processes. Within two weeks, the project would move forward in terms of the high-level framework and detailed funding norms.

The Committee was told that the document presented to Cabinet was to be released for consultation and formed part of a six-month consultation process with NEDLAC. Comfort could be derived from the fact that this process was already completed and in the process of being updated, as reported by the Minister, before being released for public comment.

Mr Qonde responded on the concern raised about the subject of agriculture, and said a number of these programmes were being offered at TVET colleges. The programme was expensive, but doing well.

He confirmed that certain DDGs were unable to attend Portfolio Committee meetings as they were attending to issues pertinent to achieving DHET targets.

Mr Kekana said that in response to issue of agriculture being taught as a subject, there remained a training shortage. He requested greater information dissemination at high schools, in collaboration with the Department of Basic Education.

Mr Mbatha confirmed there was a project under way which had been launched by the Department of Basic Education, which was dedicated to agricultural training.

Committee Business

The Chairperson informed the Committee about a Women’s Conference in the following week, so the Committee would not convene and the programme would be re-arranged. A final response on the status of the international trip was yet to be confirmed. She highlighted the importance of requesting the University of Zululand Council, as well as the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), to appear before the Committee. A subpoena had been delivered to the Committee on a labour matter, but she assured all Members that they were to be protected in their personal capacities by the law of the Constitution.

The meeting was adjourned. 

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