University of Cape Town. Picture: MOEKETSI MOTICOE
University of Cape Town. Picture: MOEKETSI MOTICOE

MPs are worried by the high salaries and benefits paid to senior university executives, in particular vice-chancellors, and have called for an inquiry into the matter.

The salaries and perks of some vice-chancellors — the academic sector's equivalent of CEOs — have been under scrutiny in recent months amid calls for cash-strapped universities to cut back on expenditure.

Earlier in October, the Sunday Times newspaper reported that academics are calling for the scrapping of performance bonuses for university vice-chancellors, after two of them pocketed R1.1m each in 2018.

The two who received the R1.1m bonuses are SA's highest-paid vice-chancellor, Unisa's Mandla Makhanya, who earned R5.2m in 2018, and the second-highest earner, Tshilidzi Marwala of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), who took home R4.9m.

According to the report, University of Zululand vice-chancellor Xoliswa Mtose earned R4.455m, despite a degrees-for-sale scandal and Council on Higher Education CEO Narend Baijnath telling Parliament last year that the “dysfunctionality” of the university had been “a great concern for decades”.

In contrast, Mamokgethi Phakeng of the University of Cape Town (UCT), which is Africa's top university according to five world university rankings, was paid R1.5m for six months' work as the new vice-chancellor.

On Thursday, Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology said, notwithstanding the autonomy of institutions to set their own salaries, it was concerned that the high remuneration levels paid to senior managers at some universities were not commensurate with the performance of their institutions, in particular research outputs and throughput rates.

“The committee will request the minister of higher education, science and technology to commission an inquiry through the Council on Higher Education into the remuneration of universities’ vice-chancellors and other senior executive managers and to report to Parliament,” committee chair Philly Mapulane said.

Mapulane said universities were public institutions that must be accountable to the people, through their elected representatives, about the prudent management of their finances.

“This question of remuneration of senior executive managers, if left unattended, may become a runaway train and therefore we are calling for action to be taken to regulate it,” he said.

In October, the Sunday Times cited Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib as saying salaries should be regulated “to ensure the playing field is level when recruiting and retaining senior academic leaders in the sector”.

“This will also assist in ensuring that while vice-chancellors and senior leaders are fairly compensated, their remuneration is not excessive and does not further contribute towards deepening the inequalities in the sector and in society.”