University of Zululand on governance and related matters

Higher Education, Science and Technology

16 March 2021
Chairperson: Mr P Mapulane (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee met virtually with the leadership of University of Zululand as well as its interim Student Representative Council to receive briefings on their governance and related matters. The presentations touched on governance and management; teaching and learning during lockdown; student performance statistics and success rates; infrastructure development projects; finances and audit outcomes; disbursements from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme; and the institution’s readiness for the 2021 academic year.

Unizulu said that in order for it to fulfil its responsibilities towards its stakeholders and to remain financially sustainable, there is a need to review the fee baseline of the University of Zululand. On registration for the 2021 academic year, the institution said that students are not required to make a minimum initial payment to register. All 2021-funded students registered regardless of outstanding debt. As part of the multimodal approach to teaching and learning, the University has also made provision for laptops for all first years.

The Student Council informed Members that the university accommodates about 6 000 students while it has an intake of about 17 000 students. The university and the Interim Council were looking, in the mean time, for more outsourced residences. The University has started with one of its biggest infrastructure project of constructing more residences, which will increase by an additional 6 000 beds. While the project was still on the pipeline many students were suffering. The off-campus residences, often referred to as ‘imiqasho’, are in terrible living conditions, particularly concerning safety. Many students are victims of crime around KwaDlangezwa.

The Student Council was pleased and grateful that the university allowed all students to register regardless of their historic debt.

Members were general pleased with the progressiveness of the institution and thanked the leadership for building a good working relationship with its Student Representative Council, and allowing owing students to register for the new academic year.

Members asked if the Financial Aid Scheme would refund the University for the purchasing of laptops for its students. How is the institution planning to handle the debt crisis at the university and what is the outstanding debt from students and how it is managing the AOD (Acknowledgement of Debt) agreements with regards to student fees? Does the NSFAS owe the university any outstanding payments for the 2020 academic year? If so, how much?

Has the institution experienced any delays of the implementation of infrastructure projects prior to Covid-19, and what caused the delays? Were there any infrastructure projects that were abandoned by contractors?

What is the percentage of the first years coming in and what qualifications have they applied to embark on? Has the university made an analysis of the qualifications they go in for? The dropout rate is low but what measures have been put in place to get in touch with those that have dropped out?

Meeting report

Opening Remarks by the Chairperson
The Chairperson opened the virtual meeting and welcomed everyone present in the meeting. He then submitted the agenda before handing over to the University of Zululand delegation for its briefing.

Briefing by the University of Zululand (Unizulu) on governance and related matters
Prof Xoliswa Mtose, Vice Chancellor of Unizulu, took Members through the presentation and touched on governance and management; teaching and learning during lockdown; student performance statistics and success rates; infrastructure development projects; finances and audit outcomes; NSFAS disbursement; and readiness of 2021.

On 2020 tuition fees, historically, University of Zululand tuition fees have been very low when compared to other universities. The University did an analysis that illustrates the material difference in tuition fees between University of Zululand and comparable universities in the public higher education sector. For the university to fulfil its responsibilities towards its stakeholders and to remain financially sustainable, there is a need to review the fee baseline of the University of Zululand.

On registration for the 2021 academic year, students are not required to make a minimum initial payment to register. All 2021-funded students registered regardless of outstanding debt. As per Council resolution payment plan, arrangements are made for unfunded students with outstanding debt; this has been implemented very successfully in the past, ensuring access for students. As part of the multimodal approach to teaching and learning, the University has also made provision for laptops for all first years.

Briefing by the Student Representative Council (SRC) of Unizulu
Mr W Nxumalo, SRC Coordinator, took Members through the presentation and commenced with the overview of the SRC. On student accommodation, he said that the university accommodates about 6 000 students, while it has an intake of about 17 000 students. In the mean time, the university and the Interim SRC are looking for more outsourced residences. The University has started with one of its biggest infrastructure project of constructing more residences, which will increase to additional 6000 beds. While the project is still on the pipeline many students are suffering. The off-campus residence often referred to as “imiqasho” are in terrible living conditions, particularly around safety. Many students are victims of crime around KwaDlangezwa. We are engaging with UMkhwanazi Traditional Authority as well as the city of uMhlathuze to compel imiqasho to be more hospitable for our students and safety concerns to be addressed.
In terms of NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) funding and allowances, The Interim SRC is aware that first-year students have not been cleared for funding and the university took a joint decision to waive registration fees for all qualifying students. This is both historic and to the advantage of all students. “We would therefore thank management for allowing such a progressive act. We are aware that returning students will receive their allowances as per the norm and no problems have been conveyed thus far.”
However, NSFAS needs to get their house in order and stretch their engagement with the university about the approved students so as to allow the university to distribute allowances in time. The delay by NSFAS on its process will compromise the relationship between students and the university.
“Lastly, as for the readiness of 2021, we must make known that we have started in a positive note with management in the academic year of 2021, where management has agreed to allow first students to register irrespective of being funded or not. We are also working together on the teaching and learning strategy to ensure that no student is left behind.”
As indicated, the Interim SRC will ensure structures are in place to increase the loud voice of students. The academics are preparing to start and are ready to service the students.
“We must take stock of the lessons from our 2020 academic year to better prepare and excel in 2021. There will always be a difference of opinion but we are grateful to every pillar of the university that has worked with us. Notably, this was not easy as we often had disagreement but we appreciated our professional indifferences. The root of a healthy relationship between management and SRC is the mutual respect and inclusive participation in decision making, which affects students.”
Discussion
The Chairperson thanked the chairperson of Council and the management led by the Vice Chancellor for such an informed and detailed presentation. The presentation has done justice to the areas that the Committee had requested to be covered. He took note of the extent to which the university has embraced the strategic approach of responding to the impact of Covid-19, which was to introduce multi-modal learning system. The university did well in introducing this approach and the distribution of learning materials to the learners in all 59 sites; academics getting involved in the process of the distribution of learning materials; introduction of the online learning system; and acquisition of laptops; providing data to students. The Committee appreciated this and also commented that the university did well in this multi-modal system. There have been engagements with other institutions and some of them were still struggling, but this university has done very well in that.

It has always been the view of the sector that no student must be left behind as the sector concludes the 2020 academic year.

The success rate of the students was also noted from 2018 up to 2020. It is slightly above the target. On infrastructure, which is a challenge for many institutions, this institution has done well. The presentation made Unizulu as construction site – this is impressive.

Tuition fees at Unizulu are said to be the lowest compared to other universities but the university continues to do well on financial management, as seen with the clean audit. The fact that the university took a decision to allow all the students to register regardless of their historical debt is commendable. This is often a matter of contention – we have seen what is happening currently in the country. Even the SRC was pleased with the management of the institution.

He asked the president of the SRC to elaborate on the issues regarding political people within the community, who are driving an agenda to paint the university in a negative light despite the milestones that have been achieved by the Council and management.

He was slightly concerned about the absence of the trade union in the institution. What are the reasons for the absence of the trade unions? Surely, the trade unions that are working within the university may be sufficient to be recognised.

Ms C King (DA) echoed the sentiments of the Chairperson and that the institution was prepared to see this academic year through. She noted that the university provided laptops and data. Was there any engagement with the allocations of laptops, with the NSFAS, and was the Scheme going to refund Unizulu on the allocations that were made by the university?

How is the institution planning to handle the debt crisis at the university and what is the outstanding debt from students and how it is managing the AOD (Acknowledgement of Debt) agreements with regards to student fees?

When will the engineering students start under the new engineering programme? What percentage of the students of the general university will embark on this programme?

What is the percentage of the first years coming in and what qualifications have they applied to embark on? Has the university made an analysis of the qualifications they go in for? The dropout rate is low but what measures have been put in place to get in touch with those that have dropped out?

Lastly, there has been a 26.4 shortfall in allocations to the universities from Treasury to the Department. Did the institution receive its allocation and is it going to experience a budget shortfall? How will that shortfall be mitigated?

Ms J Mananiso (ANC) commended the university for the gender representation in the institution. She sought clarity on why women occupied only two positions out of ten executive member of the council?

Mr M Nxumalo (IFP) also commended the presentation that was presented by council and management. It is very unlikely for one to go to an institution and find members of the SRC agreeing with the management of the institution. This tells one that so much effort has gone into repairing that relationship and this was mainly attributed to allowing students with historic debt to register.

How does the institution intend to recoup some of the money owed by students, whether funded or not funded. Students and former students owe institutions across the country over R10 billion (R14 billion, to be exact). How much is owed by students to Unizulu and will that not affect the workers, because, this could potentially put the workers at risk? How far is this going to affect the workers? If the institution does not collect revenue, it might affect some of the workers by resulting in lay-offs.

He was reiterated his pleasure with the relationship between the SRC and management.

Ms D Sibiya (ANC) also commended the Council and management for the good work that has been done. She wanted to know about the challenges that were experienced during the distribution of laptops in some areas.

Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC) said that the relationship between the SRC and management was the kind of relationship that the Committee would like to see across the sector. Members appreciated the healthy relationship between the two, saying that there is a level of pro-activeness from both sides.

Regarding the nursing science courses, she wanted to know of the changes that were made on qualification codes, where the legacy qualifications were phased out and there was a change in the code, which affected NSFAS’ ability to disburse funding to the students. Some students were affected because some institutions did not receive funding since they were registered on the old qualification code. Did the institution experience this challenge as well or were the old qualification codes phased out in time?

Does the Council believe that it has been able to follow through with the recommendations made on the spatial plans by the independent assessor and CHE (Council for Higher Education) to overhaul the university? Which areas are to be improved?

Has the institution been able to improve on the compliance and submission of annual reports as well as audited financial statements? There was also a great concern on about the large number of vacancies.

When the Committee met with the institution in November, the institution presented how it would try its best to adapt to the new learning and teaching online system. The pass rate speaks a lot to the teaching. Is the academic staff feeling that the continued assessment method was working or are they struggling with it?

She sought confirmation whether the institution was indeed rolling out the engineering programme for this academic year.

In terms of accommodation at the institution – there have been challenges on this as indicated by Council and management in previous engagements. What progress has been made to standardise the quality and criteria of the accommodation around the institution?

She sought clarity on whether the SRC that was engaging today was not the interim SRC.

The last time she visited the institution there was a union that was present but not yet registered. Has the institution assisted that union to register?

How is the management managing the matters that led to the distrust of the institution with regards to the altering of student marks and administration requirements? Does the Vice Chancellor feel that the people in her institution were not compromising ethics? What mechanisms have been put in place to ensure that is mitigated?

There was a suggestion that the Vice Chancellor (VC) should set up a forensic investigation on the functions of the cooperatives in the institution as well as the company that had links to some members of the Council. Was the VC able to set up that investigation?

What different learning styles have been accommodated at the institution?

There are 161 students that de-registered in 2020. Is there any analysis that has been done regarding de-registration of these students?

Mr T Letsie (ANC) commended the leadership regarding the issuing of laptops, how it adhered to not leaving students behind and on the stability of the institution. He asked how long the position of the Registrar has been vacant and what measures have been put in place to fill it.

Secondly, has the institution experienced any delays of the implementation of infrastructure projects prior to Covid-19, and what caused the delays? Thirdly, has the institution experienced any local business forum demanding contracts for the infrastructure projects and how it was dealt with? Were there any infrastructure projects that were abandoned by contractors? What was the cause of this? Does the NSFAS owe the university any outstanding payments for the 2020 academic year? If so, how much? Lastly, why is there no recognised union at the university?

Responses
Prof Mtose said that what Members see is the reflection of a collective management and Council that takes refuge in collaboration and partnerships, which has assisted in moving forward. Hence, there is a good and productive relationship amongst the stakeholders and the SRC.

Understanding the composition of Council, it is not easy to ensure a balance is created in terms of gender because of various appointees. However, 44% consisted of women. It is not balanced but the Council would try in future.

She indicated that out of the four deans that the institution has, three are women.

On institutional audit (spatial institutional audit by CHE), the university had an Administrator and there were 17 recommendations by CHE. The institution’s report indicated that CHE was able to write to the university indicating that it has reached an agreement that the institution has been taken out of that agreement because it had implemented all the recommendations except two of them, which were the SRC and infrastructure.

On the recognition of the union, the Council believes that there is inclusivity and that workers are represented. Unfortunately, there are laws that must be respected and the labour relations act provides guidance on how unions should be recognised in the institution.

Mr R Ngcobo, Executive Director: Human Resources, Unizulu, assured the Committee that the institution takes employment equity seriously. Council used the economically active of the KZN province to gauge the progress on all different levels. Even with the suggested targets for the sector by the Department of Labour, at the top four levels at the institution, Unizulu has achieved all those targets. It is still struggling at the senior level but it will catch up soon. It is struggling because the sector is a very competitive market. There are three universities in the province and they are all competing for the senior people. Leadership development programme has been launched for women and the institution is running this programme again this year.

On the union representation, there is a union at the university but it is not recognised because its membership is not adequate for representation at a representative level. The union officials are trying to recruit members. There was a recognition agreement, which expired in 2018, and since then some of its members have since resigned and it has been struggling to recruit more people for the union to be sufficiently representative to start a process to negotiate a recognition agreement.

On the nursing programme and coding, there is no challenge in that programme. The university has started a process for accreditation for Bachelor of Nursing. It is now waiting for feedback.

It is going ahead with the offering of engineering studies in 2021 – for the electrical and mechanical engineering. There were 40 students that had registered for the former and 27 for the latter. The plan is to take 50 per programme for 2021, and the plan is to increase the numbers as times goes.

All qualifications at the university are approved by the Department, accredited by CHE and professional bodies and registered with SAQA.

De-registration of the 161 students, this issue is not out of the norm if one looks at the trends in previous years. “We did not have students that de-registered in large numbers.”

The Chairperson interjected and asked for detailed responses on the presence of the union at the university.

Mr Ngcobo responded that the institution used to have a recognition agreement that expired. After it expired, it coincided with the strike that was taking place at the university. As result, some of the members resigned and then there was a shortage of membership to be able to negotiate a recognition agreement with the Council. The union had to start all over again to recruit members and it has not succeeded on that. Eventually, the matter went to the CCMA (Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration) and it was resolved that the union must be granted the basic organisational rights, which means it can recruit and represent their members on disciplinary matters or grievances but it does not have the right to participate in collective bargaining. At the moment, the membership stands at 11% out of 1 100 employees – this is not even considered to be sufficient to engage at a bargaining level with the employer, which is somewhere around 25% to 30%. The majority to bargain across the board must be 50 plus 1.

The Chairperson asked for a report on the history of the recognition of the union to be sent to the Committee in the next seven days.

Mr P du Plessis, Executive Director: Finance, Unizulu, said that 90% of the students are funded. Only confirmed funded students for 2021 were allowed to register with debt. This meant the fees would be covered and that means the institution would not be in the worse off position by the end of the year than the institution is right now.

The outstanding debt at the end of 2020 was R198 million, of which NSFAS still owed R156 million. This included the additional allowances that had to be paid to students during the extended academic year.

On the budget shortfall, there was a challenge in balancing the budget due to the zero percent increase in the block grant. If there is going to be more cuts in the block grant subsidy in future there will be serious challenges in the university in terms of operational and staff budget.

Mr T Mncwango, Executive Director: Infrastructure and Covid-19 Team Leader, Unizulu, responded to say that no institution in the world is able to provide accommodation to all its students, so the students rely on the off-campus accommodation. The students have complained about the conditions of the private accommodation. The Department has since come up with standards on how the condition of the accommodation must be in those private accommodation spaces. The university has held workshops in terms of assisting off-campus residence providers on how they can be accredited to using the template and the conditions that have been set at a national level. Through that workshop, the university has ensured that those private providers meet the standards; otherwise they will not be approved.

On infrastructure, the majority of the projects in the presentation are earmarked to be implemented in 2021 going forward. In reality, there is a long list of projects that would take about 10 years to complete. These included student accommodation; lecture theatre halls; laboratories; academic buildings and offices, and many other associated infrastructures that support the core business of the university. Since 2017/18, the university has been working very closely with the Department long-term vision and plan for infrastructure. Key to that is the spatial vision for the university, which is a precursor to the funding for all these projects because it allows the level of estimated funding required. Before that the university relied on submitting business plans to the Department, which presented a lot of challenges.

The current projects were now aligned with the framework, which was issued by the Department, on infrastructure projects in higher learning institutions, and that allows the institutions to bring these projects into completion without delaying the processes. The student accommodation packages dates back to 2014 and it is targeted as a priority to be completed. There is now adequate funding available and plans are complete and the university was now ready to roll it out.

The Chairperson asked a following on infrastructure and asked whether there were projects that have long been commenced and were not yet completed as per the schedule – the details on these projects.

Mr Mncwango said that the institution does not have any abandoned project. There may have been delays but there were no abandoned projects.

The Chairperson asked for a detailed report on infrastructure projects to be provided to the Committee.

Ms Mtose said that, on the issue of selling qualifications and marks for sex, these are matters that cannot be tolerated and students have said that their own lives were at stake because of this matter. In 2011, Prof De Beers was appointed as the Administrator to investigate this matter. He found that all these degrees that were for sale were actually desktop exercise. Even DHET also came up with a report that there were people in the areas of Pretoria that were carrying qualifications from University of Zululand and getting jobs at department level. Any university could have been in this position but there were staff members that were dealt with who put these certificates up for sale.

In 2018, we dealt with this issue and certain people were dealt with, which resulted in a big strike in the university. She confirmed that there were members of staff that were asking students for sex in exchange for marks. The university dealt with all cases reported by the students.

On the delivery of the learning materials, there were challenges and one of the challenges was that the students were given notice in time about where material would be dropped off and when. Administrators packed these materials; it was a hard and expensive task. The academics learnt and reported that during the first round of going to the areas, the response was very low and they reported that students, after seeing that others were receiving materials, started asking for materials to be dropped off. The university then decided to do another round.

At the beginning of the 4IR (Fourth Industrial Revolution), there were talks about how teachers may be replaced by robotics. She discovered that the more the sector moves into the multi-modal learning, the more staff members were required. She saw no threat on staff members.

If the NSFAS is able to pay the university what is owed to it, it will have a healthy financial position. It is also students that owe the institution – if these debts were to be paid, the institutions would be in a good financial position.

On the alteration of marks, prior to the multi-modal system the traditional process was that the examination marks were processed through marking of exam papers. The academic staff would generate an answer sheet that has all the marks of a student. The onus is on that academic to ensure that the final mark is uploaded on the ITS system to be utilised. Prior to that, the examination faculty committee is convened to scrutinise the spreadsheets to eliminate any mistakes or errors. Those marks are then approved and entered into the ITS. Checks and balances are thoroughly conducted to ensure that the marks are a true reflection.

The members present from the SRC are interim SRC members because after the online elections were conducted, there were some objectives regarding fraud that was reported. Council initiated an investigation, which is almost complete, and that report will be submitted to Council by end of March 2021 and the announcement will happen based on the outcome of that investigation.

The experiences of the academics towards continuous assessment have been positive so far. The university followed various forms of assessments and those assessments were designed by the different lectures in different faculties. There have not been any issues or challenges from the academics regarding the continuous assessment form of teaching and learning.

On the dropout rate, the institution has a strong student support structure on campus that is led by the teaching and learning centre. There is also a psychologist on campus that attends to psychosocial problems of students. There is also a pastoral care unit that provides pastoral care to students that are victims of gender-based violence. 

The Chairperson thanked the leadership of the university and submitted that it came prepared for this engagement and Members got the sense that it properly organised. “We need to draw experiences from the 2020 academic year and identify areas where we can improve as a sector.” There is a lot other institution can learn from this institution, especially the manner in which the multi-modal system was implemented and the dropping off of learning student learning materials.

The Chairperson thanked everyone for attending the meeting.

The meeting was adjourned.

 

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