The Committee met virtually with the Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation to receive submissions and presentations on the Ministerial Task Team (MTT) on the Student Funding Model, the National Skills Fund (NSF) Forensic Investigation report and the NSF entity report. Matters became problematic turn when the Chairperson announced at the beginning of the meeting that the Department communicated the day before that it would not be presenting or submitting the Ministerial Task Team and NSF Forensic Investigation reports due to a Cabinet process that was still underway for the former, whilst legal advice was being sought by the Minister on the latter report.
Members were not pleased with the request of the Department, given that communication lines have been open. Members were frustrated that the Committee was only informed or requested of this yesterday. The Department provided that Cabinet was still processing the MTT report and its findings and recommendations because it has financial implications on the national fiscus, hence the delays. However, the Department committed to having these processes concluded within six weeks. The Committee gave the Department until the last week of November to submit the report. By next week the Department was asked to send an action plan detailing how it would ensure that all the recommendations of Cabinet were met to avoid further delays in processes on the MTT Report. Members stressed the importance of this report due to the altitude of student funding in the country. The recommendations of this report would be implemented immediately for the 2023 academic year concerning student funding.
As for the National Skills Fund forensic investigation report, the Department informed Members that the report contained the names of implicated individuals and handed the report over to senior counsel for legal advice, particularly regarding whether the report may be published as it currently stands. This process was underway and the attorney responsible for the work had been briefed. The Committee gave the Department until Friday to provide another action plan on how it would take steps to ensure that this report was submitted and the legal advice completed timeously to avoid further delays.
The Committee expressed its preference to hear the NSF entity report concurrently with the Forensic Investigation report. Thus, the refusal to receive the presentation in today’s meeting.
The Chairperson drew the attention of Members to the issue of the reports that were meant to be presented in the meeting today. These reports include the Ministerial Task Team on Student Funding, the MTT report on the National Skills Fund; the Forensic Investigation report of the NSF and progress in terms of the implementation of its Audit Action Plan. It had come to the Chairperson’s attention yesterday morning that the Department would not be able to present the MTT report on Student Funding and the Forensic Investigation report.
Deputy Minister’s Remarks
Mr Buti Manamela, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, commenced saying that the Minister had written to the Chairperson of the Committee requesting the indulgence of the Chairperson as it related to the two reports: the Ministerial Task Team (MTT) on Student Funding and the Nationalll Skilllls Fund (NSF) forensic investigation. These reports were scheduled to be presented to the Committee today.
Regarding the report on student funding, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) requested that the report not be presented this week and allow Cabinet to conclude its process. The final report has been presented to Cabinet and the intention is to have the report finalised by Cabinet before it is made available publicly. If the Committee grants this request, the Department will commit to ensuring that it is presented within the next two months.
The second report related to the National Skills Fund forensic report, which has been taken for legal advice by the Minister in relation to the rights of the individuals that are named in the report before the report gets released to the public. The intention is not to tamper with the content or substance of the report, but to understand what the implications would be if the report is made public. The DHET hopes this process will be finalised as soon as possible so that the report is available. SCOPA is also expecting the release of this report to engage with its substance.
The Deputy Minister made a firm commitment to the Committee that the processes were underway to finalise both reports so they are available for public engagements. He requested the Committee accept the Minister’s apology and postpone the presentation of these reports.
Committee discussion on postponment
The Chairperson said that the Committee was concerned about the delays, especially the one on student funding. Finding a sustainable student funding model and having that in the sector is of great importance; thus, it must be finalised and one must implement the recommendations in that report. The Committee acknowledged that Cabinet must also run its processes but it must be considered how important it was for Members to get the report and see how the recommendations could contribute to a sustainable funding model for higher education.
Secondly, within the two months, what measures would be put in place to ensure that the next time this report was presented to Cabinet, there were fewer chances that it would be taken back? It would be important to get clear steps of an action plan in writing to ensure that this report is mostly likely to be improved next time it goes to Cabinet.
Her concerns were the same for the NSF report. However, the Committee would need a roadmap of the checks and balances that will be done by the Department to ensure that these reports are finalised and shared with the public.
Ms C King (DA) echoed the sentiment of the Chairperson. She said that the sustainability of the funding model and that of the NSF to pursue its quest to be recognised as a legal entity was very important and could be taken away from DHET in terms of its human resources mandate. She was concerned that the prepared presentations would not assist the engagement or Members in making informed decisions. Members had no sight into the report and could not make informed decisions. If this exercise goes on, it would be a waste of time. The presentation was a rough summary.
Mr T Letsie (ANC) said that this matter was extremely frustrating. It was said that the Student Funding Model report would require two months to be finalised in Cabinet. This is a report that was handed over to the Minister in June. The Minister then handed it over to the DG for implementation until June 2023. What is the DG expected to implement until June 2023 when Cabinet has not finalised engagements on the report? He did not think the Department and the Ministry were prioritising this matter the way they should. Last year, in September, when the MTT was appointed, it had been a year but the Department is requesting more time.
On the NSF report, this one was finalised and handed over on 17 March 2022; it has been six months since then. What was happening in the past six months if this process is only being done now? There is no indication of what has been done since the report has been handed over to the Ministry and the Department. To be getting legal advice on this report now is a joke. We might come back next year September and Members would be told that this was the first legal report. And we will hear about legal reviews. We might be here forever.
It was suggested last year to take this matter to the SIU but the Department refused to do so. Now, it looks like a gross error was made.
It did not sit well with him that Members were being given a “summary of a summary”. At the beginning of the term, the programme of the Committee was shared when the DHET and it would have seen that on 21 September 2022, the NSF forensic report and MTT student funding model report were scheduled. They did not think to write to the Committee then that there were still processes underway. Yet, the Committee was only informed the day before. This is unacceptable. This hampered Member’s ability to do their work; the Committee should have scheduled another entity or stakeholder.
Ms D Sibiya (ANC) was disturbed and said it looked as if there was no communication between the Chairperson and the Department. Why was the Chairperson not told timeously that the Department was not ready?
Mr B Yabo (ANC) was confused about how these reports were still undergoing internal processes and why they could not be shared with the Committee because it was public. To do the work effectively, the Committee must be afforded a copy of the report to satisfy themselves about what happened and what must happen going forward. If the implementation has already begun, what is being considered that Members cannot be privy to by getting the actual reports? The Department has already bounded itself by the timeline it has set for the implementation. He added that the Committee should have been kept in the loop on the status of these reports to avoid fruitless meetings like today.
Ms D Mahlatsi (ANC) aligned her sentiments with the previous Members. She said that their work requires proper coordination and cooperation. The Committee programme was often shared with the Department timeously and it was unwarranted that this discussion was taking place. The Committee does not have enough time in a term. A day was lost and time constraints were a continual issue.
The Department needs to finalise its processes urgently and timeframes must be committed to. She said that Members needed to know when the report would be presented. Members also noted that SCOPA had requested the NSF report within ten days and it is important that the Committee also receives it on the same date it will be submitted to SCOPA. The Committee is the custodian of oversight of the Department. It has a bearing on the work that the Committee does.
She added that the Committee had sent the NSF packing before when it came to brief the Committee on its audit action plan because the NSF was not doing well as an entity. To know progress of the work, the report ought to be submitted to the Committee. The NSF was chosen for a particular reason. These reports were packed to be presented simultaneously because they have a bearing on the audit report and that of the Auditor-General of SA.
The Deputy Minister said that the Department remains committed to accountability before the Committee and it would not undermine the Committee’s role. The Ministry and the DHET take these reports' work seriously and want to ensure that both matters are finalised and presented to the Committee.
The fate of the MTT student funding model does not lie with the Department anymore. There have been various engagements in Cabinet since the Minister received the report. The report has financial implications for the national fiscus; it cannot be distributed until Cabinet has satisfied itself that the commitments that the Department wanted to make on behalf of government were justifiable. The overall recommendations made by the report, not only the financial implications, were very important. The finalisation of the report may be done within six weeks and after that, it will be made available.
Parliament and its meetings are public meetings. And if the report is presented, it would undermine the work of Cabinet.
By the time preparations for the 2023 academic year were done, the DHET would have considered the recommendations from the report and would be ready to action them. He assured the Committee that the Department would not implement the recommendations of the report without engaging with the Committee and the stakeholders of the sector.
The NSF report has been handed over to senior counsel to advise on how the DHET should handle the contents of the report as it related to the individuals who were affected. The plan is not to compromise the report. The steps that the Department has taken will also be tabled to show that the delays were not unnecessary and that they were important to the process.
The Department commits to submitting these reports by the second week of the next term.
The Deputy Minister apologised profusely to the Committee.
The timeliness from the senior counsel was within the end of this week. The Department engaged with the senior counsel daily. The attorney that will be responsible has already been briefed and the work has seemingly commenced on their side.
The Chairperson clarified that the communication from the Committee’s side was very clear but what came as a shock was how one finds oneself here when communication was also active. On the NSF report, if we are being given the summary of the report, why is the Committee not getting the full report? She said that on 27 September, the Committee would like the NSF report to be sent and the first week of the last term is when the presentation will be made to the Committee by the Department. By Friday, the Department must submit an action plan to detail how it will ensure that by 27 September, the report is submitted.
On the MTT report on student funding, if the calculations are not wrong and factoring in the two months requested by the Department, the Committee requested that that report be provided in the last week of November 2022. In the next week, an action plan must be submitted on how the DHET will ensure that all the recommendations given in the last Cabinet meeting are met within the two month timeframe to avoid further delays.
The Deputy Minister asked for constant engagements between the Minister and the Chairperson in the preceding period proposed for both reports to avoid repetition [of what occurred today].
The Chairperson asked why the Department was prepared to share the summary of the recommendations in the NSF report but not prepared to share the report.
Dr Nkosinathi Sishi, DG, DHET, said that the Minister indicated that he would be comfortable with releasing the MTT report. In his mind, there are no problems with that report. Between the office of the Chairperson and the Minister, this report could be shared.
The Chairperson noted this and provided a way forward: The NSF entity report will be sent to the Committee by the time the Zoom meeting ends. On Friday, the plan must be submitted that details that on 27 September, the forensic investigative report on the NSF will be sent to the Committee. In the first week of the last term of Parliament, the Committee will receive a briefing by the Department on this report. Colleagues have expressed their concerns and the communication from the Committee has been very clear.
On the MTT on student funding report, in the next week, the Department must submit an action plan which will ensure that all the recommendations that Cabinet has given are met and put into confidence any consultative processes that can take place to ensure that by the time the matter is brought to Cabinet, there is no likelihood of returning the matter. There was awareness about the type of anxiety that comes with a sustainable student model – it eats into the core business of the institutions and hampers the climate of those institutions by raising fears and creating a toxic environment for the sector. There was a much better start to this academic year and one wants to get to day zero of student protests.
The Committee wants the recommendations from the MTT Student Funding report to assist in ensuring a way forward on the funding needed for the sector and lifting the mandate and agenda of poor school education and training programmes. This report is important because if there is consensus on the recommendations, Members would like to see them implemented immediately.
The Committee considered and adopted minutes dated 2 and 7 September 2022 without any amendments.
The Committee would be meeting at the NSFAS offices on Friday for a working-session for the entity to properly explain all the issues that Members have raised during meeting engagements.
The meeting was adjourned.
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