Students at the Vaal University of Technology. Picture: SOWETAN
Students at the Vaal University of Technology. Picture: SOWETAN

The Vaal University of Technology (VUT) has taken steps to tackle the allegations of corruption and weak management identified in an independent assessor’s report into the troubled institution released on Friday, according to administrator Ihron Rensburg.

VUT is one of SA’s biggest universities of technology, with more than 22,000 students and has been repeatedly placed under administration in the past two decades.

Universities of technology offer vocational degrees and diplomas, rather than the more theoretically orientated education provided by traditional universities.

Higher education minister Blade Nzimande placed VUT under administration for the third time last August, after he received an interim report from independent assessors appointed by his predecessor Naledi Pandor to look into the institution’s problems.

The final report compiled by former Unisa vice-chancellor Barney Pityana and National Library CEO Rocky Ralebipi-Simela was published in the Government Gazette on Friday, and paints a picture of an institution paralysed by infighting, corruption, and poor governance. Its recommendations include asking the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to probe senior officials and everyone else involved in the awarding of contracts.

‘Secrecy, collusion and factionalism’

Rensburg said on Monday that he had taken the helm of an institution that had failed to provide quality education for its students for some time, a situation worsened by “indifference, fear of possible retribution, secrecy, collusion and factionalism”.

Since his appointment former vice-chancellor Gordon Zide retired, disciplinary processes had been instituted against staff implicated for fraud and corruption in various forensic investigations previously undertaken and key vacancies including that of the CFO will shortly be filled. The university’s cash flow position had improved after resolving outstanding payments from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) in excess of R300m, he said in a statement.

In addition to the outstanding payments owed by NSFAS, the university has been battling with student debt, which soared after it relaxed its payment policy in the wake of the fees must fall movement. Student debt rose from R327m to R501m between 2017 and 2018, according to its 2018 annual report, and was identified as one of the biggest financial risks facing the university. More than half the students at VUT are funded through NSFAS.

VUT spokesperson Mike Khuboni said student debt had since then decreased, and now stood at R400m.

Rensburg said other measures taken to stabilise the university as part of his two-year turnaround plan included upgrading dilapidated student accommodation, the appointment of internal and external auditors, and a review of senior management, including deans and heads of department.

“All management personnel in post levels one to six, including the executive deans and heads of academic departments, will be required to undergo an annual lifestyle audit and declaration of conflicts of interest,” he said.

Rensburg said he would discuss the assessor’s report with the minister. In addition to calling for the SIU to step in, the assessors recommended a more transparent process for appointing council members, a smaller council of no more than 20 members, and the establishment of a whistle-blower fraud hotline.

The report describes VUT as an institution in which administrative appointments crowded out spending on infrastructure, teaching staff and student accommodation, led by an ineffectual and weak vice-chancellor.

“We heard and received evidence of and allegations and counter-allegations about corruption, abuse of power, victimisation and intimidation, fraud ... [and] many long-term suspensions including those of senior members of staff. ... A climate of fear, instability and discontinuity has been allowed to take root in the institution. This situation has definitely led to institutional paralysis, to a highly compromised academic enterprise, financial instability and to an untenable institutional climate,” they wrote.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za