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SOUTH AFRICA: 'Bankrupt' university taken over

Walter Sisulu University in South Africa has been placed under administration in a bid to save it from complete collapse. Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande, who has tasked a top-level academic with taking over the running of the institution, said the aim was to redeem the troubled university within the next two years.

Walter Sisulu is the third university this year in which the government has intervened.

In April the department appointed an administrator to run the University of Zululand, and in August Tshwane University of Technology was placed under administration due to mismanagement. Its administrator, Professor Themba Mosia, said last week that Vice-chancellor Johnny Molefe had been dismissed for using a fake doctorate in his application.

The announcement about Walter Sisulu University came a month after a recommendation by independent assessor Professor Daniel Ncayiyana.

Nzimande told the media in Cape Town on Wednesday that he had tasked Tshwane University of Technology Deputy Vice-chancellor Professor Lourens van Staden to take over the running of the "technically bankrupt" university and turn its fortunes around.

Van Staden has the mandate to carry out a forensic audit of the institution "in order to identify corrupt practices" and take legal action, as well as take over the management of the university and "steer it back to operational and financial viability". Van Staden will also initiate the appointment of a new university council.

Nzimande said Walter Sisulu University had exhausted its R250 million (US$31 million) overdraft facility, mainly to pay the salaries of its more than 2,000 employees. In October the university struggled to pay lecturers.

The minister said the university also had lots of problems related to poor financial management and human resources practices, weak information technology systems and poor governance.

"The most important thing is to rapidly set up systems so that we are able to close whatever leakages and loopholes there are. It is quite a serious situation," said Nzimande.

Walter Sisulu is one example of how not all mergers of universities in South Africa have had happy endings.

Located in Eastern Cape province town of Mthatha, the university services mainly poor and rural students. It has campuses in Mthatha, East London, Butterworth and Queenstown.

The university was formed in 2006 when the former University of Transkei, Eastern Cape Technikon and Border Technikon were merged through government act. The formation of the new university was part of a broader restructuring of the higher education landscape that involved consolidating 36 universities and polytechnics into 23 universities.

The institution had been "underfunded from the start", receiving only R400 million (US$50 million) of the R1.2 billion (US$149 million) required to effect the merger.

Nzimande said financial management at the institution had collapsed to the point where "council sometimes received three different types of financial statements on the same matters".

The minister said that where corruption was detected, it would be tackled "without fear or favour". He said that while there was no immediate evidence of corruption, there were some worrying signs of financial management lapses.

"The university has many bank accounts with many different signatories. One needs to focus on whether there has been corruption, because this is public money," Nzimande said.

Higher Education Director-general Gwebs Qonde, addressing the same media briefing, said the university would be backed by government-guaranteed bank loans as the plan to rebuild the institution was drafted and effected.

Nzimande appointed independent assessor Ncayiyana to look into Walter Sisulu University affairs after a series of disturbances rocked the institution this year. His findings were released on 28 September. He recommended that the education minister appoint a "thick-skinned" administrator to lead the university.

"In its present state, [the university] can fairly be described as ungovernable and financially unsustainable, with the climate marked by conflict, suspicion, perceived conspiracies and distrust," said Ncayiyana in his report.

He noted that union and student structures had accused the senior administration of managerial and financial incompetence and even corruption, while the senior management in turn accused these structures of disruptive conduct and sinister agendas.

He said there was a need to reassess stakeholder relationships to restore trust.

But the Daily Dispatch said in a comment that the appointment of Van Staden would be made harder by the initial sceptical response by university staff, who immediately questioned his credentials. "There is little point in fighting Nzimande's choice, however. Staff would do better to cooperate and give him all the support they can," the paper said.
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