In their final meeting for 2020, the Select Committee on Education and Technology, Sport, Arts and Culture met on a virtual platform with the Department and Minister to discuss the Annual Report for both divisions of the Department -- the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI).
In his opening remarks, the Minister commended the DSI and its Director-General (DG) for their awards of excellence -- they had been voted Best Department and Best DG, along with the Montpellier Award, for the 2019/2020 financial year.
The DHET team reported that 48 of its 69 (70%) of their targets had been met. In the DSI, the performance per programme saw Programme One and Two with a 100% achievement, while Programme Four had the lowest achievement, with 67% achieved.
In the discussion on the reports, Members asked about the targets under Programme Six of the Community Education and Training (CET) presentation, which had not been met. They also wanted further explanations about the certification backlog at technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges; the MeerKAT telescope project; Departmental spending on consultants; information communication technology (ICT)-related errors in the NSFAS system; the R4.4 billion needed for the extension of the university year; and the filling of vacant posts, particularly the acting senior positions.
The Chairperson was worried about the incidence of fraudulent salary overpayments. Overall, however, he commended the DHET's work as a source of hope for South Africans, and looked forward to discussing their continued progress in the new year.
Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, said Dr Phil Mjwira, Director-General, along with the Department of Science and Innovation, had been voted the best DG and best Department, and had received the Montpellier Award for the 2019/2020 financial year, which was a proud achievement. Initiatives of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), which would be presented and discussed in the meeting, were aligned to the broader government agenda of transforming South Africa, including the National Development Plan (NDP). The NDP acknowledged the roles of science and innovation in alleviating poverty. Internationally, science and innovation were sources of economic growth. The DSI was guided by the fact that without a skills-driven and innovation-based economic recovery, growth and development strategy, it would not achieve its objectives of dealing with poverty, unemployment and inequality. That was the guiding framework.
The Annual Performance Plan (APP) dealt with the last year of the sixth administration, covering the issues one would see as being part of a transition. The DG would provide further details on the medium term strategic framework (MTSF). Overall, they had achieved the main objective they had set for themselves, which was partly why the DHET as a Department had been recognised as the best – including the fact that they had an unqualified audit outcome. This was important for them.
The DG of the DHET as a division would outline their goals, along with the fact that the Department had faced enormous challenges of governance in particular. This had to do with the fact that they had the largest number of entities in the department. Despite the complex challenges, the Minister was happy to report they had received an unqualified audit, along with many of the objectives they had set for themselves. There had been much improvement, such as in the participation of black South Africans in the university system. DHET was also stabilising their technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges, improving their exam system and establishing their community training system.
On the whole, they were of the view that what would be presented marked significant process by the ANC government in a hugely important area. The presentation was also being made in completely changed circumstances, with a new imagined landscape of higher education, science and innovation. This was an opportunity to re-align their strategy in turning the economy around.
The Minister concluded by reminding the meeting of the critical factor of COVID-19 and its impact. While evaluating their progress in 2019, they needed to bear in mind the implications of the pandemic.
The Chairperson said that they prided themselves in the Department’s clean audit three years in a row. He wished that other departments were inspired by this. It was particularly important because of the five goals of the department.
Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) 2019/20 Annual Report
Mr Gwebinkundla Qonde, DG: DHET, presented the Department’s annual report (AR) along with his team -- Ms Eudy Mabuza: Chief of Staff; Mr Reineth Mgiba, Deputy Director General (DDG): Strategic Planning; and Ms Pretty Makukule: Chief Financial Officer.
The DHET team reported that 78% (31) of direct output targets, and 59% (17) of system output targets, had been achieved. Overall, 48 of 69 (70%) of targets had been met.
Under Programme Three: University Education, there were ten planned outputs for the financial year, of which nine were achieved. The key target not achieved was the draft regulatory framework for university fees, which was not finalised and submitted for approval by the Minister by 31 March. The work towards finalising the framework may be delayed due to the uncertainty introduced into the system by the advent of the COVID-19 disaster.
Under Programme Four: Technical and Vocational Education Training, it was of considerable concern that only two of seven targets were achieved. The report on infrastructure spending at the TVET college level showed that only 21.7% (R133.2 million) was actually spent against the planned 70%: (R1 038.8 million) of TVET maintenance expenditure in terms of approved infrastructure maintenance plans. Another critical target not achieved was the issuing of certificates to qualifying candidates.
Under Programme Five: Skills Development, a challenge was the lack of availability of workplaces for 2019/20, associated with the struggling economy.
Programme Six: Community Education and Training, as well as Programme Two: Planning, Policy and Strategy, saw significantly higher target achievement rates. The primary target not achieved was that the policy framework on gender-based violence (GBV) in post-school education and training (PSET) was not gazetted as planned. Cabinet had been scheduled to approve the GBV policy on 28 March. Completed documents were submitted on 17 February, but the meeting was cancelled due to the lockdown/state of disaster.
Programme One: Administration saw 99.6% of invoices which were received from creditors being paid within 30 days.
The presenters proceeded with the financial reports and action plans to improve audit findings.
Department of Science and Technology (DST) Annual Report
Dr Mjwara, Director General: DST, presented along with his team -- Mr Daan du Toit, DDG: International Co-Operation and Resources; Mr David Mmakola, Acting DDG: Institutional Planning and Support; Mr Mmboneni Muofhe, DDG: Technology and Innovation; Mr Imraan Patel, DDG: Socio-Economic Partnerships, Programme Five; Ms Nombuyiselo Mokoena, DDG: Corporate Services, and Mr Robert Shaku, Acting CFO.
Performance per programme saw Programmes One and Two with 100% achievement, while Programme Four had the lowest achievement, with 67% achieved.
According to the trend analysis of the Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI’s) contribution to university student enrolments, there were slightly fewer university students supported by the DSI due to budget cuts. The DST was particularly proud of the fact that during the 2019/20 financial year, the DSI had awarded 3 205 research grants, of which 48% went to black researchers, and 41% went to women.
Under the financial statements, concerns were raised about delays in filling prioritised vacant positions. Furthermore, irregular expenditure of R194 000 had been incurred. This was as a result of non-compliance with the public service regulations. There would be an assessment in line with the irregular expenditure framework to establish the causes, and remedial measures were in the final stage. In prior periods, there had been irregular expenditure of R35 104 that related to prior years. No fruitless and wasteful expenditure had been incurred in 2019/20.
DSI received an unqualified audit opinion on both finance and performance objectives meaning the 2018/19 audit outcome was maintained.
The Chairperson thanked the presenting team, adding that it showed how far they could go. It was their departmental responsibility to support and mentor others too.
Ms D Christians (DA, Northern Cape) described the presentations as “in-depth,” which she appreciated. She had questions which she understood might not be able to be answered immediately in the meeting, which could be replied to in writing. There were system targets under Programme Six of the Community Education and Training (CET) presentation which had not been met, and part of the reasons given for not reaching them was poor planning, no enrolment targets, poor advocacy to attract students, limited access to infrastructure etc. She wanted to know from DHET whether there were plans to review the viability of the CET programme. and to capacitate the sector more adequately in terms of the management staff.
She went on to note the certification backlog at TVET Colleges, which remained a huge concern. As a Committee, they would continue to monitor the DHET’s stated goal of achieving a zero backlog. Under Programme Four (TVET colleges), it had been reported that only two of seven targets were achieved because principals were not prioritising the relevant processes. She asked about consequence management – whether there were plans in place to monitor and control concerns around Programme Four going forward in order to achieve the targets.
With the MeerKAT telescope project, she asked whether there were plans, especially in an area like the Northern Cape where data transmission and technology was very limited, to extend assistance for the people for data and network.
Ms Christians also brought up spending on consultants. Though this expenditure had been minimised, it remained significant. What plans, if any, were in place to do away with consultants completely in the future, and to capacitate and employ suitable people? If not, she cautioned that they may continue to see high expenditure on consultants without capacitating those on the ground, especially in TVET colleges and universities.
She said that across South Africa, there had been many reports that students had not received their National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) bursary payments, or that when they tried to access their funding, particularly through the NSFAS wallet, an error message occurred. Others reported different faults, such as money reflecting as spent, without students having spent the funds. This indicated a number of information technology (IT) or information communication technology (ICT)-related errors in the NSFAS system. She noted that a tender had been out for the NSFAS system to be upgraded, though the tender had been withdrawn. If the tender for the ICT disbursement had been withdrawn, when would it be reinstated? Would it be in time for the new cohort of students in the following year (2021) so the same glitches did not occur? She had sent NSFAS a list of names, ID numbers and other details of students where errors had occurred, but had heard nothing back to date. Three months later, some of the students in the Northern Cape had still not received their funding at some of the TVET colleges. It was thus of huge concern, as they went through the e-wallet system, that some students had not received their funding.
Finally, the extension of the academic year at universities had been noted in the media. In August, Minister Nzimande had reportedly said that there would be a need for R4.4 billion for the extension of the university year. Ms Christians asked if this was still the case, and what impact it might have on students – especially the new cohort that were matriculating at the end of 2020.
Mr M Bara (DA, Gauteng) congratulated the DSI on their achievement of best department and director-general, as initially reported by the Minister. This reflected their objectives of being a department that was responsive to the needs of students. Furthermore, in spite of everything, both departments (DSI and DHET) had achieved unqualified audit outcomes in terms of handling finances. This was a “huge achievement,” given the fact that across departments, there had been different (qualified) audit outcomes. It was important to acknowledge that there were staff complements which were doing what they were supposed to do. He found the reports encouraging, as they meant that people were playing their part, while ensuring that requirements were being fulfilled.
In terms of recruitment, he noticed that positions such as the CFO in the DSI were acting roles, and that there were other vacancies. This was in order to get a sense of those who needed to commit to what they were doing. At what point would the vacancies and acting positions in the DSI and DHET be addressed? Secondly, he was worried about the certification backlog within the DHET, so that students who were uncertified might be ‘stuck’ as they were unable to continue with their studies, jobs or careers. At what point would this be corrected? Furthermore, they could not ignore COVID-19 -- there were issues to take into account as they moved forward into the subsequent year. Mr Bara asked about their readiness as a Committee and Department, as there would be more students needing financial assistance. They would thus need to prepare themselves to ensure finance, schooling etc.
Ms N Ndongeni (ANC, Eastern Cape) added to Mr Bara’s question, wanting to know how many vacancies there were in the DHET as a whole, and what it was doing to fastrack the recruitment process. What were the most critical needs or funding shortfalls on the DHET’s projects? What were the funding requests for each of the five programmes for 2020/2021, and had there been preliminary indications of what would be awarded in relation to the request?
Ms M Gillion (ANC, Western Cape) congratulated the DHET on their achievements, as alluded to by the Minister. One of the issues she had picked up was that the Department had provided a report on wasteful expenditure in the previous financial year, and their investigation on the matter. Her concern was that, since the previous week, she had received calls from concerned parents who were struggling to register their children for NSFAS applications. Until the previous day, there might have been a system or connection error. The concern was that there were students in the country struggling to register for NSFAS, with the application closing date being the day before the meeting. She asked the DHET to provide an assurance to parents of what the next step would be if they could not register applications for their children for 2021. The system error was out of the parents’ control.
The Chairperson asked the Minister, the DG and the team about the filling of vacant posts. If there was a budget to fill these posts, what was being done to speed up the recruitment? This was his primary concern. He was otherwise satisfied with the performance of both divisions under the Minister.
Mr Qonde started his response by referring to community education and training colleges (CETs). The arrangement was between the DHET and the Department of Basic Education (DBE), as CET colleges did not exist within their infrastructure, where there were undertaking teaching and learning. They were using mainly schools as facilities to undertake and rollout the programmes of CET colleges. This was one hindrance in institutionalising the sector properly, because it had no infrastructure of its own. These were points of discussion in government and treasury. Some of the staff used there were also involved in teaching at DBE schools, and then contracted and were paid on a claim basis by the CET colleges. Largely, the staff were not adequately trained for the particular sector. All these matters were receiving attention in terms of support to principals and teachers. In some instances, they were partnering with TVET colleges. Mr Qonde used the example of a structured partnership between a TVET college and CET college. This was effective, because the TVET colleges had capacity and systems. It was only in the previous financial year that this arrangement had been properly allocated within CET colleges after the necessary capacity and systems were put in place. These challenges were receiving attention.
Regarding the infrastructure at TVET colleges, this was the first allocation for maintenance funding on infrastructure that had come from the National Treasury. One of the requirements was to develop an infrastructure maintenance plan based on the regulations developed by the Department of Public Works and Infrastructure (DPWI). In the plan, there needed to be individuals responsible for facility management, as well as the capacity to procure infrastructure-related activities in a manner prescribed in terms of the regulations of the DPWI and the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA). In-house, there was a lack of planning capability, procurement capacity and implementation. There was thus a process of developing this capacity. Procurement, for example, upon having developed the infrastructure maintenance plans, had to take place at an institutional level, and not elsewhere. Support for colleges and institutions to undertake these responsibilities should therefore be given to each and every college so that they could run with their processes. The procurement of infrastructure was delayed, but if it worked smoothly, it could happen within four to five months, but with no capacity it would take longer. At times, upon finishing the advertisement for the identification of suitably qualified candidates, they sometimes did not find anyone who was suitably qualified, meaning they needed to restart the process afresh. There was support being rendered to these colleges so that they could spend money in the manner that was required within the timeline.
Referring to the NSFAS payments, he said NSFAS had systems for dispersing funds to each student. In some instances, there were problems. For example, when a student changed their cellphone number, it became difficult from the standpoint of NSFAS to access the student without the student having updated NSFAS with the latest information insofar as a contract was concerned. These matters were normally referred to institutions to partake in the advocacy campaign, so that as soon as a student changed contact details, they could inform NSFAS, and payments to them would be smooth.
Mr Qonde commented that there was a lot of fraud in this area. NSFAS had to ensure that when funds were dispersed to a particular student, it was indeed this student receiving the funds. If a student was unable to access NSFAS, the DHET was also available with a toll-free number.
The key challenge with the extension of the academic year was to ensure that institutions were able to finish the academic year and afford every student an opportunity to write exams and finish. At the same time, there were processes of planning for the following academic year. Some of the work undertaken showed that there might be a shortfall of approximately R4 billion. The DHET was thus engaging with National Treasury for the required assistance. The imposed budget cuts meant huge challenges in addressing this matter. It had been important to manage the situation by lowering expectations at the time, because resources were insufficient to address everything they would have liked to address. Furthermore, the DHET wanted to ensure that the meagre resources available were managed efficiently and effectively, to see how the challenges could be mitigated. Engagement with the relevant structures in government was key to get extra funds for the extension of the academic year. By nature, this is something that had not been budgeted for, but had rather come as a result of the pandemic. The Department were doing their best to minimise the negative impact.
Certification was a matter receiving attention from the Department. It was being addressed “quite aggressively” with their partners in the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) to ramp up the capacity of the platform to produce the certificates where the glitches were experienced. This was also to ensure that all other supporting mechanisms and activities towards to realisation of ensuring certificates were issued on time, and that various challenges were attended to. The problem was experienced when students staggered subjects after struggling to complete or pass subjects. The IT platform was still struggling to consolidate students’ marks, but the matter was receiving adequate attention from the DHET and SITA.
Vacant posts were being advertised, with a recruitment and selection process under way. The DHET hoped that these matters would be concluded speedily. It needed to find out from NSFAS about the closing date and glitches, which the DHET was hearing about for the first time. They would make sure that the public would be informed accordingly.
The Chairperson was worried about the issue of fraudulent salary overpayments. He wondered about the process to retrieve the money. The incident within the DHET was not a once-off mistake, but a deliberate issue of fraud. These issues were supposed to be dealt with, not through labour relations but with criminal investigations. He assured the DHET that as good as they were, they did not have the skills or capacity of the police. They needed to ascertain how the incident occurred, and who was responsible. He concluded his point, and requested the DG revisit this in his response.
The DG assured the Chairperson that the matter of fraud raised was certainly a criminal matter, which was being processed with the law enforcement agencies. They were receiving intermittent reports on the progress.
The Chairperson took the opportunity to thank the Minister, DG and team. He commended their work as a source of hope for South Africans. He invited the Minister to offer closing words.
Minister’s closing remarks
Minister Nzimande said he was directing significant attention to the poor spending on infrastructure. This included restructuring the management inside of Parliament, which was responsible for the unacceptable situation of infrastructure spending at less than 25%. He would be updating Members on these kinds of issues as time progressed. He had also appointed an expert ministerial advisory committee to advise him on all training matters, including issues raised in the meeting, such as infrastructure for training and the colleges. He concluded by thanking the Chairperson and Members for their encouragement.
The Chairperson said they would meet again in February 2021, as the meeting was the last for 2020. The meeting concluded with the adoption of the minutes of the Committee meetings on 6, 16, 20 and 23 October, and 24 November 2020, without amendments.
The meeting was adjourned.
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