ATC210318: Report of the Portfolio Committee On Higher Education, Science and Technology on its Oversight Visit to the Vaal University of Technology (VUT), Dated 17 March 2021
Report of the Portfolio Committee On Higher Education, Science and Technology on its Oversight Visit to the Vaal University of Technology (VUT), Dated 17 March 2021
The Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology having conducted an oversight visit to the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) in Gauteng on 26 February 2021, reports as follows.
1. DELEGATION LIST
1.1 Members of the Committee
Mr MP Mapulane: Chairperson (ANC), Mr WT Letsie (ANC), Ms JS Mananiso (ANC), Ms NT Mkhatshwa (ANC), Ms C King (DA), *Ms N Tarabella-Marchesi (DA), Mr M Nxumalo (IFP)and Dr W Boshoff (FFP).
1.2. Support staff
Mr A Kabingesi: Committee Secretaryand Mr T Bottoman: Committee Assistant.
The Committee undertook its first oversight visit to the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) on 7 February 2020 to engage with the Administrator on progress made towardsstabilizing the institution after being placed under administration on 15 August 2020. The oversight visit offered the opportunity to the Student Representative Council (SRC) and labour unions of the institutions to also present their perspective of the institution on behalf of their constituencies.
Subsequent to the oversight visit, the Committee held follow-up virtual meetings on 6 and 28 October 2020, respectively, to receive updates on the status of the administration intervention, including a response by the Administrator and management team on the allegations raised in the whistle-blower’s submission to the Committee. It was at the meeting held on 28 October 2020 that the Committee resolved to undertake a follow-up oversight visit to VUT in light of the responses received from the University concerning the issues raised by it.
The objectives of the oversight visit on 26 February 2021 were to receive a briefing from the Administrator on:
- Progress in the implementation of a turn-around strategy to stabilise the institution;
- Progress in the establishment of the University’s governance structures such as the Institutional Forum (IF) and a permanent Student Representative Council (SRC) and Council;
- An update regarding the security tender;
- Update on completion of abandoned or delayed infrastructure projects;
- Work undertaken in preparation for the post-administration period;
- Update in relation to the disbursement of the NSFAS funding and allowances to students, and plans to assist the “missing middle” students; and
- Readiness for the 2021 academic year.
In addition to the afore-mentioned objectives of the oversight visit, the Committee also met with the relevant stakeholdersof institution which included theSRC and labour unions. The stakeholderswere also granted an opportunity to elaborate on the challenges experienced by the students and workers, respectively. The Committee had an opportunity to undertake site visits to the infrastructure projects and students’ residences of the University to assess their status.
2.1 Remarks by the Chairperson of the Committee
Mr M Mapulane: Chairperson welcomed the presence of Prof I Rensburg: Administrator of VUT; the Chairperson of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), Mr E Khosa, including the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Mr A Nongogo;the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) officials and delegation from the management ofVUT and stakeholders. He said the Committee had resolved to undertake an oversight visit to VUT to assess the status of the administration intervention and to ensure that it is a success.
The Chairperson indicated that some administration interventions provided stability at institutions and in other instances, the status quo remains the same. He made an example of the NSFAS, which had been under administration for two years, and the situation at the entity did not improve during the administration period. He said VUT would be used as a case study to determine the outcome of the administration intervention. He said that the oversight visit of the Committee was also meant to engage with the University stakeholders such as the Student Representative Council (SRC) and labour unions to get their perspective with respect to the state of affairs at the institution during the administration period.
3. SUMMARY OF THE PRESENTATIONS
3.1 Administrator and management
Prof I Rensburg: Administrator thanked the Committee for visiting the institution to assess the progress made with respect to the administration intervention. He said the administration period comprised three phases, namely: stabilization 15 August 2019 until 29 February 2020 (concluded); turnaround (1 March 2020 until 28 February 2021 (well underway); council establishment, induction and handover (1 March 2021 – 31 May 2021 (revised from 31 July 2021).
The Administrator proceeded to present on key points and action during the administration period, which included the approval of the University’s Infrastructure Management Policy; the review of the viability of the satellite campuses situated in Upington, Ekurhuleni and Secunda, which would be dis-established over the next two years,starting with Ekurhuleni in 2021. He said the University had engaged with the affected staff at these campuses, and the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU) has submitted a dispute with the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) opposing the dis-establishment. Prof Rensburg reported that the University had completed the purchase of the Academia Student Village, which had 1 836 beds that were in excellent condition at a significant discount. Furthermore, the University submitted proposals for Cycle 6 of the Infrastructure Efficiency Grant (IEG) phase 1 for critical maintenance and new projects.
The Administrator mentioned the other key areas during the administration period, which included engagement with the Special Investigative Unit (SIU) to investigate suspicious transactions at the institution for the last three (3)academic years; the revised Institutional Statute and policies to bring themin line with best practice and the implementation of the University’s Strategic Plan 2024 and the establishment of the Interim SRC until SRC elections are held not later than September 2021. The University was also looking at the possibilities of having online SRC elections, which would be explored further given the Covid-19 pandemic.
In relation to the suspension of the former SRC leaders, the Administrator said the four (4) former student leaders were afforded sufficient opportunity to appeal their suspensions. However, they failed to submit their appeals, and the University gave them the expulsion for three (3) years. The Administrator undertook to engage with management regarding the sanction of the former student leaders with the possibility of reviewing it.
In relation to the response of the University to the global Covid-19 pandemic, the Administrator said the University’s focus shifted to the Biosafety of students and staff, work-from-home arrangements for staff and the recovering of the academic year through providing remote learning support for students. The Administrator noted that the University completed 75 percent of the 2020 academic year in December 2020 and 28 February 2021 was the last day for completion of the 2020 academic year. There were 4 000 students on campus during the lockdown period. The University also produced its own face masks and managed to get hand sanitizers that were mainly donated by SASOL.
With respect to the distribution of laptops, the Administrator indicated that the University procured 7 000 laptops and 4 000 had been distributed to students. The remaining 3 000 laptops would be distributed to the first year students in during the 2021 academic year. The Administrator said students responded well to remote learning and the participation rate for semester 1 reached 94 percent and the pass rate for semester 1 modules was 87 percent for online learning and assessments. The 2021 academic year would commence on 8 March 2021.
In so far as the impact of Covid-19 on institutional finances and cash flows, the Administrator indicated that the University’s subsidy was reduced by 1.1 percent, and the payment of fees by students who were self-funded (6 500) dried up in April 2020, resulting in income loss of R100 million out of an operating budget of R1.5 billion. In addition, the University only collected R8 million in student debt during this period and there was approximately R198 million of outstanding debt from self-funded students. Consequently, achieving a balanced outcome between income and expenditure required a major revision of operational expenditure. The Administrator indicated that the decision by the National Student Financial Scheme (NSFAS) to stop pre-funding allocations to institutions would pose a serious financial challenge for the institution. The University did not have sufficient cash flow for March 2021 and would utilize the Infrastructure Efficiency Grant(IEG) funds to leverage the inadequate funding. Students would be returning from 8 March 2021 and they would require food, transport and book allowances,which the University must cater for, in the absence of pre-funding from the NSFAS.
The Administrator gave an updateon the establishment of governance structures such as the Council, Institutional Forum (IF) and a permanent SRC. He said the Institutional Statute had been reviewed and approved by the Minister, and awaits gazetting. The induction of the new Council would be on 31 May 2021 and this would be preceded by the induction of the new IF. The Council was expected to take over the governance of the institution by 1 June 2021.
In relation to the security tender, the Administrator said the Management Committee (MANCOM) approved the awarding of the tender to Phiri Phiri Security Services, which was the winning bidder in September 2020. The Administrator explained the procurement processes of the institution and mentioned that six companies were shortlisted for the security tender by the Bid Evaluation Committee (BEC). The ranking was undertaken by the Bid Adjudication Committee (BAC), and Kya Guards was initially ranked first. However, there were missing documents that were requested by the BEC, which resulted in Kya Guards being ranked second. Consequently, a court challenge was launched by Kya Guards on two grounds, namely: (a) to cancel the service level agreement (SLA) dated 2 December 2020 and (b) review the process followed on the tender to determine if VUT procurement policies were followed. Judge Siwendu issued an interim court order on 18 December 2020, finding in favour of Kya Guards in respect of (a) above, except that the implementation of the contract was suspended rather than cancelled. The Administrator indicated that the court judgement had no intention for the University to remove its interim arrangement in terms of the security contract. Kya Guards had also filed an application of contempt of court against VUT management which was subsequently withdrawn.
Mr L Swana: Executive Director Operations and Logistics gave an update on the completion of abandoned or incomplete infrastructure projects. These included: renovation of Student Town and three old residences; renovation of minor damaged sections of Meropa Residence; Teacher Education Building at Sebokeng Campus and the Engineering Building Extension at Main Campus.
Ms R Mgobo: Chief Financial Officer (CFO) gave an update in relation to the disbursement of the NSFAS funding and allowances to students and plans to assist the missing middle students. She indicated that out of the 617 students with appeals, 217 cases were still under investigation and the University was awaiting for the response from the NSFAS. With respect to the missing middle students, the University had made a provision of R26 million in the 2021 financial year, and R10 million of this funding was from the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs).
Prof M Linington: Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) Teaching and Learning and Student Support Services presented on the readiness for the 2021 academic year. Her aspect of the presentation focused on: the finalization of the 2020 academic year, which was 28 February 2021; registration of students, which would be fully online; the return of students to campus, which would commence with the first year students from 10 March followed by senior students on 15 March 2021; the first year students’ orientation, which would run from 15 – 20 March 2021 and full teaching and learning commencing on 22 March 2021.
The Administrator’s presentation concluded with an update with respect to the closure of the satellite campuses. The Administrator said three sites of delivery were identified for closure in Secunda, Upington and Ekurhuleni. These sites of delivery are financially unstable due to declining student numbers and the required capital to bring them up to standard amounted to R30 billion. The University planned to secure the jobs of the affected employees and engagement with employees were ongoing.
3.2 Interim SRC
Mr N Ndlovu: President of the SRC said the University stakeholders proclaimed the truth with respect to the state of affairs of the institution. He noted that since the arrival of the Administrator on 12 August 2019, the efficiency in terms of service delivery has never changed. The infrastructure at the University was not conducive for both teaching and learning, and the University showed no interest in dealing with these problems from the root level. In addition, the University’s position on reducing wasteful expenditure had rather increased in the past two years with the acquisition of materials that had no positive impact on addressing the primary issues faced by students.
With respect to the update on the progress made in finalizing the SRC constitution and electoral code, Mr Ndlovu indicated that the constitutional amendment from recognized structures were submitted to the previous SRC, and the Interim SRC was waiting for the institution to organize a constitutional summit. The University operated with an SRC Constitution that was last amended in 2009, and this was unacceptable.
In relation to student accommodation, the President indicated that officials did not play any oversight role to ensure that residences were cleaned daily at the main campus. He reported that equipment was stolen from the residences due to ineffective stock materials control system; wasteful expenditure was rife in the residence department due to the decentralized requisition process. The residences that were previously renovated were still in a bad state and students struggled with Wi-Fi connectivity and some external residence were in a bad state.
In so far as teaching and learning was concerned, Mr Ndlovu indicated that students experienced challenges with online learning and the distribution of laptops was not done in the correct manner as some students who were residing in the rural areas did not get them. He noted that there were lecturers who refused students to participate in the reassessments.
In relation to the disbursement of the NSFAS funding and allowances to students, Mr Ndlovu said students had been struggling to get their NSFAS allowances during the extension of the 2020academic year; there was no accuracy in allocating the allowances and the NSFAS should direct accommodation money to landlords because of corruption at the Financial Aid Office. Mr Ndlovu alleged that the University’s Financial Aid Office had failed students and there were certain employees who claimed accommodation allowances on behalf of students. Consequently, some landlords had evicted students from theirresidences and seized their laptops due to outstanding payments. Mr Ndlovu concluded his presentation by stating that the University was not ready for the 2021 academic year.
3.3 National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU)
Mr J Radebe: Branch Chairperson of NEHAWU thanked the Committee for affording the union an opportunity to make its presentation. He began his presentation by providing a high-level overview and trends in black led universities. He mentioned that VUT had been under administration for three (3) times, and the journey for the workers at the University had been difficult. He indicated that the Universities of Technologies (UoTs) in particular, had been experiencing problems since the merger process that started in 2004 and there was a need to assess the success of these mergers. Black led institutions in particular, had been stifled of progress due to various interests in their procurement process, especially in infrastructure projects.
In relation to governance at black led institutions, he indicated that there were conflicts between councils and management of these institutions, and the deployment to critical institutional positions was done in accordance with proximity to power. The state interventions such as the appointments of independent assessors and administrators, especially at historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs) have not yielded positive outcomes post the administration period.
In so far as the internal assessment and status quo of VUT was concerned, Mr Radebe said NEHAWU was amongst the first union, which expressed its support to the Administrator when he was appointed. However, some decisions that were taken by the Administrator were unilateral. In this regard, the union called for the review in the 36-month suspension of former student leaders; further consultation with respect the closure of the satellite campuses; the review of the suspension of workers and students during the lockdown period and de-militarization of the campus. The union also requested for: feedback on annual salary increment; full investigation of the old and new tenders conducted through an independent process; the review of level 16 to level 14; the full recognition of trade unions and SRC as equal partners in the institution. The union further called forspeedy resolve of all pending cases of suspended employees the discontinuation of the utilisation of consultants to run the University.
3.4 National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU)
Mr F Moletsane: Deputy Branch Chairperson of NTEU led the delegation of NTEU and presented on their behalf. He said the union prepared the presentation in line with the invitation of the Committee, and what was presented to the Committee was the collective view of the union. With respect to the state of affairs of VUT from a workers’ perspective, the union was concerned about the financial viability of the institution due to the lack of sufficient reserves to sustain salaries for the first four (4) months of every year. The procurement process led to the delays in the acquiring of goods and services required, thus impacting on service delivery to students and staff. The process followed by management regarding the foreclosure of the sites of delivery was unclear, and there was vast uncertainty regarding the logistics surrounding the process. Mr Moletsane said the process was ongoing pending the outcome of the CCMA case. Despite the challenges in the institution, there had been improvements, especially with continuous communication from the Administrator to labour and students regarding the state of affairs of the institution. The filling of level 1 to 5 vacancies was also in progress.
With respect to the insourcing of workers, Mr Moletsane said the insourcing of protection services personnel was in progress, despite the process being slow. Although several employees had been appointed, NTEU still questioned the financial viability of this process. In so far as readiness for the 2021 academic year was concerned. Mr Moletsane noted that the 2021 academic year would commence at the beginning of March 2021, however, there was a delay with the appointment of academic staff. Other challenges experienced included students experiencing difficulty with internet connectivity, which made it difficult for online submission of assignments; challenges with the NSFAS applications and payments, as well as challenges with administrative processes of the registration procedure.
3.5 National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) Chief Executive Officer’s (CEO) Input
Mr A Nongogo: CEO took the opportunity to respond to some issues that were directed at the entity. He said the decision by NSFAS to stop paying institution upfront payments was taken by DHET. He indicated that the upfront payments were made to institutions using the NSFAS’s reserves, and for the 2021 academic year, institutions would receive funding/allocation in April 2021. Institutions would be allocated funding for two months in advance, while the entity would still be attending to its information technology (IT) system challenges.
In relation to the outstanding cases of students that had not yet received their NSFAS funding, the entity used VUT as a case study to improve its reconciliation processes. Unreliable data and submission of incomplete records contributed to the delays in the closing out of these cases. With respect to the 1 000 students reported to have not received their funding for the extended academic year, the CEO said those students were not in the list submitted to the entity for students that required funding for the extended academic year. The entity had reimbursed those students that did not receive their funding for the extended academic year. In addition, funding decisions had been made for continuing students for the 2021 academic year, and the entity anticipated that by 3 March 2021, decisions would be communicated regarding the new intake for 2021 academic year.
4. SITE VISITS
4.1 Engineering Building
Mr L Swana: Executive Director Operations and Logistics led the delegation to the Engineering Building, which was amongst the infrastructure projects atthe institution that were incomplete. He said the building was due for an upgrade and extension in order to accommodate more students in the Engineering Faculty. However, the contractor that was appointed for the project experienced internal problems and financial difficulties and it abandoned the project when only 10 percent of the work was done. It has been four years since the projectcommenced. Subsequent to the abandonment of the project by the contractor, the building was vandalized and electrical components were stolen.The outstanding work was quantified, including remedial works due to exposure of reinforced concrete works to extreme weather over the four years. The damage to electrical work was estimated at R40 million. There were no arrests made for culprits responsible for the damage and investigations were ongoing.
The initial cost of the project was estimated at R30 million. However, remedial work that had to be undertaken was estimated at R68 million. The University paid the contractor for 10 percent of the work it had undertaken before the contract was canceled. Other costs were for the design and other related expenditure of the projects. The University had submitted a request to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET)on 15 January 2021 for Infrastructure Efficiency Grant (IEG) funding amounting to of R68 million to continue with the project. The tender process for appointing the new contractor would be undertaken once funding has been secured.
4.2 Life and Physical Science Building
Mr Swana: led the Committee to the Life and Physical Sciences Building,which was 4 800 square meters in size and was 97 percent complete. He said the project had been ongoing for the past five years and the delays were attributed to the contractor that was appointed for the project had experienced financial difficulties, which led to the company being placed under business rescue. The project was also delayed by the local business forums that demanded they be given sub-contract work in the project, and the University acceded to their request. The cost of the project was estimated at R127 million to complete. The building was vital for science students since it was equipped with laboratories,which were primarily for research work.
4.3 Student Residences
Thefirst residence visited by the Committee was Meropa Student Residence. The Residence had been out of service for the past four (4) years due to vandalism during the #FeesMustFall campaign. Sections of the Residence were badly damaged, and the University appointed a service provider who undertook maintenance work. The residence was in a good state and ready to accommodate students.
The second residence visited by the Committee was Lethabong Student Residence. The University embarked on maintenance and upgrading of the residence with respect to the piping works and it was completed. However, despite the scope of the work being directed at piping works, the residence had leaks and broken shower doors. Due to time constraints, the Committee was unable to visit other residences. However, the student residences seen by the Committee were clean, including the surroundings of the student village.
The Committee having undertaken a follow-up oversight visit to the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) made the following observations:
- There had been improvements in the manner in which the Administrator and University prepared their presentation in line with the request by the Committee. In addition, the presentation was detailed and there was more transparency in responding to the previous issues that were raised by the Committee.
- Inconsistent communication between the management and stakeholders (SRC and labour unions) was a cause for concern. It seemed that the stakeholders were not updated about the turnaround strategy of the Administrator, and some issues they raised were not being attended to by the Administrator.
- The proposed dis-establishment of Secunda,Upington and Ekurhuleni Satellite Campuses was noted as a concern considering the institution’s plan to expand its intake of full time equivalent (FTEN) students to 25 000 by 2024 and the government’s plan of increasing access and opportunities for young people in the post-school education and training (PSET) system. In addition, where these campuses exist, there were no contact universities or satellite campuses, and students and workers at these campuses would be negatively impacted by the closure. The University did not have a clear plan on how it planned to absorb/integrate the students and workers from these campuses considering the vast distances between the main campus and these satellite campuses.
- The delays in the completion of infrastructure project, in particular, of the Engineering and Life and Physical Science Building projects at the institutions were noted as a serious concern. Compounding the situation, were contractors that abandoned the projects owing to their internal challenges, which affected the completion of the projects. It was unacceptable that these projects had been incomplete for the past five (5) years, and yet there was inadequate consequence management applied against the involved companies.
- The state of some of the University owned student residences was noted as a concern, and the defensiveness of the Director responsible for maintenance work at the residences was concerning.
- The inconsistent Wi-Fi connectivity within the University for students for teaching and learning purposes was noted as a concern. It was noted that VUT as a University of Technology (UoT) should not be struggling with Wi-Fi connectivity.
- The university relied heavily on government grants for its operations, and there was limited third stream funding initiatives to improve its financial position.
- The expenditure on compensation of employees, which was estimated at 65 percent of the University’s budget was noted as a serious concern and a risk ofits future sustainability.
- The participation rate of students, which was said to be at 95 percent during the lockdown period was commended by the Committee.
- The heavy security on campus as observed by the Committee during its site visit was noted as a concern and could be intimidating toward students.
- The delays in the finalization of the disciplinary cases against employees implicated in irregularities were noted as a concern. In addition, the Administrator acknowledged that he had not succeeded in dealing with disciplinary cases expeditiously given that his term was coming to an end in May 2021.
- The University’s inability to protect the Engineering Building, which was situated within the campus from vandalism and theft was noted as a serious concern; despite the institution having a security company that was monitoring the campus 24/7. The lack of arrests of individuals responsible for theft and damage to the building was also concerning, despite the investigation being ongoing for a while.
- The University did not have a proper lighting and functional CCTV system around the campus and this compromised the safety and security of students, in particular at night time.
The follow-up oversight visit to the University provided the Committee with an opportunity to assess the progress made by the Administrator towards the stabilisation of the institution, which had been under the administration since August 2019. The visit also sheds more insight into the state of the infrastructure projects and some of the student residences, which students complained about, during their previous engagements with the Committee.
The Committee noted that progress has been made by the Administrator towards stabilizing the institution and commended the level of transparency with respect to the response to the issues that were previously raised by the Committee in its engagement with the University. The Committee was concerned about the incomplete infrastructure projects at the University and what appeared to be a lack of consequence management against the companies that were involved in breach of contracts. The University had to redirect some of its resources for remedial work to be undertaken to complete these infrastructure projects. The inadequate communication between stakeholders and the Administrator, including management was a cause for concern, and the Committee urged the Administrator to establish a multi-stakeholder’s forum that will enable stakeholders to express their views.
The Committee indicated that it was looking forward to continue engaging with the institution, in particular, the new Council and Vice-Chancellor that would be appointed when the term of the Administrator comes to an end in May 2021. The Committee indicated that those who would be appointed on the new Council should be individuals with the requisite skills and they should ensure that the institution becomes stable and focus on its core business, which is teaching, learning, research and community engagement.
The Committee having undertaken a follow-up oversight visit to the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) recommends that:
- The outstanding disciplinary hearing cases against employees implicated in irregularities be concluded before the term of the Administrator comes to an end.
- The Administrator appoints an Institutional Forum (IF) before the appointment of the new Council is concluded.
- A multi-stakeholder forum consisting of the Administrator, management, ISRC and the labour union be established and meet on a regular basis to resolve disputes between management and stakeholders, and to improve communication.
- The University working in collaboration with the NSFAS speedily resolve the outstanding cases involving 217 students that had not yet received their NSFAS funding and allowances.
- The Administrator ensures that the recommendations contained in the Independent Assessor’s (IA) report are implemented before his term comes to an end.
- The University reconsiders its decision to suspend the former SRC leaders for 36 months and allow them to returnto campus to complete their studies. Universities should provide space for students to learn and engage in activities, and at times they make mistakes and must be rehabilitated. The three-year suspension would destroy their future and the University should consider restorative justice.
- The existing internal factions within the institution be eliminated, and the stakeholders contribute to the good governance andthe stabilisation of the institution.
- Further consultations be undertaken with the University stakeholders and the respective communities concerning the dis-establishment of Secunda, Upington and Ekurhuleni Satellite Campuses.
- The NSFAS consider assigning an official to the VUT who will assist students with queries related to their funding.
- The University reviews its organizational structure to reduce the 65 percent expenditure on compensation of employees, which may have adverse effect on its financial sustainability.
- The University develops mechanisms to expand its third stream income generating capabilities to improve its financial viability.
- The University considers involving Higher Health during the orientation of first year students in light of the Covd-19 pandemic.
- The University develops a plan with timeframes for completingabandoned and incomplete infrastructure projects.
- The University management needs to work hand in hand with the SRC in order to resolve the issues raised by students.
- The University submits a spreadsheet with details regarding 217 students whose NSFAS appeals have not been resolved to enable the Committee to make follow-up on this matter.
Report to be considered.
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