Corrupted: A study of dysfunction in universities in SA

According to Philip Altbach, Jonathan Jansen’s new book, Corrupted: A study of chronic dysfunction in South African universities, tells an unpleasant but very important story – not only for South Africa, but globally – about how corruption can seep into academic institutions.

It is a story that also jars with the higher education and development literature where the university is studied as an important enabler, or anchor, of development rather than as a ‘consumer’ of development.

The study of dysfunctional universities by the distinguished professor of education at Stellenbosch University shows that, in the post-1994 period, there have been no fewer than 20 interventions by government into 15 of South Africa’s 26 public universities.

For Jansen, visible signs of chronic dysfunction include: never-ending stakeholder conflicts, ongoing student protests, violent confrontations, occasional burning of buildings, police presence and campus closures. Some of the consequences are a loss of teaching time, funder withdrawal, research delays, the departure of top academics and students, a drop in staff morale and government intervention with the appointment of an administrator.

An important contribution of the book is that it acknowledges that some of the roots of dysfunction lie in the historical inequalities between institutions based on their colonial and apartheid histories.

A history of resource deprivation in former bantustans being geographically isolated from the major industrial areas is vastly different from the history of English- and Afrikaans-speaking institutions supported by different national government regimes as well as colonial roots based on the values of the mother countries (mainly the United Kingdom and central Europe).

Ruthless competition for scarce resources

But, for Jansen, this is too easy an explanation (sloppy social science) because universities are not merely a reflection of history but are made and remade in the context of their times to produce particular and different social and academic outcomes.

Other explanations for chronic dysfunction that Jansen thinks are too easy include apartheid, a lack of institutional management or governing capacity, and an absence of ‘integrity’, meaning a lack of core values to which those who work at universities subscribe.

Among others, he points out that the University of the Western Cape, which is a historically disadvantaged institution that has suffered all the disadvantages, has, nevertheless, become an exemplar of a successful university.

Jansen’s contrasting analysis, and what is ‘new’, is that he asserts that there is a common thread that runs through all the dysfunctional universities: the university became the site of a ruthless competition for scarce resources.

These chronically dysfunctional universities, with the exception of the University of South Africa (UNISA), are all located in resource-poor areas where the university is a major, if not the major, source of funding and opportunity for corruption, which ranges from contracts (such as for construction projects), to services (such as transport), student accommodation, and the disturbing selling of fake certificates.

Among others, a special investigative unit found hundreds of doctoral certificates (with a vacant space for the name) in the desks of several academics at the University of Zululand.

Rooted in political economy

The book is an account of chronic corruption rooted in a political economy framework which explains the emergence of chronic institutional dysfunction.

In this sense, it is very different from sporadic interruptions, such as protests about fees or student debt, that occur at the functional universities. This distinction is important.

An earlier University World News article declared that “South African universities are engulfed in corruption”. Jansen’s book does not assert this.

He makes a point to emphasise that chronic dysfunction affects a particular group of institutions that have had ministerial intervention through the appointment of an administrator and, in some institutions, this has happened more than once.

Jansen describes his method of studying these universities in some detail. The main sources of data were the 17 administrator reports, ministerial reports produced on the dysfunctional institutions, official audit reports and more than 100 transcribed interviews with a spectrum of academics and administrators.

Jansen’s description of the conceptual framework is that political economy is defined as the relationship between power and resources. Resources are not just material, but also symbolic (such as certificates), political (factional party politics) and cultural (values).

This corruption is not purely financial and has its origins in previous struggles between the institutions and the state, but also struggles within and between unions and management, between students and management, and contestations between different, competing student and trade union groups.

Into these dissenting and competing groups comes criminality – which, in some cases, is how the academic project becomes marginalised and criminalisation takes centre stage.

An interesting and despairing chapter describes how dysfunctionality is practised. There are 12 types which include the use of the disciplinary function (on opponents), rumour and gossip, tripping up tactics, false promises of rewards, and the threat of violence.

And, as in the criminal world, there are repercussions for those who dare to call out or report corruption within the institutions.

The attempted assassination, during January 2023, on Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, the vice-chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, the institution where Nelson Mandela studied, was a hit in response to the vice-chancellor’s corruption investigations.

University councils

A key underpinning of the problem is the lack of governance and managerial capacity combined with a lack of academic integrity. A particular group that Jansen identifies as a key source of the problem is the university councils.

There are numerous problems with these high-level decision-making or governance bodies. Not only do many of them not support university management, but they also stoke division within the institutions and, in some cases, participate in looting the university.

According to Jansen, a major problem with many university councils is that they have become increasingly politicised.

Many of the members do not, as is the case in established universities, come from successful senior business and professional backgrounds. Instead, many of them see the university as a source of business, which ranges from having endless meetings for which they get allowances to attend, to doing business with the university.

In addition, the ministerial appointees seem to fall within the ambit of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party’s “cadre deployment” project, meaning politically aligned individuals being placed on the council by the minister of higher education and training to fulfil a political role, which can include siding with certain student or union groupings and having a say over appointments.

Redress funding

Fairly early in the book, Jansen laments the lack of redress funding for the historically disadvantaged institutions. He sees this as a form of state capture of the Mandela government by international funding agencies.

Contradicting this position, two senior government officials of that time, one in the department of education and the other in the national treasury, tell the same story.

They were, and are, convinced that the historically disadvantaged institutions did not have the management or academic capacity to absorb and manage large sums of funding, and both cite an early example where the University of Fort Hare could not manage a modest amount of infrastructure funding provided. In terms of Jansen’s own analysis, it is fair to assume that massive redress would have resulted in equally massive dysfunctionality and corruption.

Instead of large-scale redress funding, there were numerous modest attempts at capacity building, the earliest of which was an initiative by the first post-apartheid education minister, Professor Sibusiso Bengu, who, with the assistance of the Auditor-General’s Office, carried out an audit of administration and management systems at all historically disadvantaged institutions and recommended a series of remedies.

Almost all overseas development cooperation aid was directed to the historically disadvantaged institutions – including the USAID Tertiary Education Linkages Project, or TELP, South Africa Norway Tertiary Education Development Programme, or SANTED, and the European Universities Libraries project.

Probably most significantly, in the early 2000s, all historically disadvantaged institutions were recapitalised as part of the restructuring process.

This, for example, put the University of the Western Cape on the path of financial sustainability. A joint department of education, Centre of Higher Education Transformation, USAID and Ford Foundation five-year council capacity-building project was launched in about 2000 to train new council members.

Alas, the evidence from Corrupted is that this project had mixed success; some of the historically advantaged institutions frequently reported positive outcomes from the project while clearly the same could not be said for the historically disadvantaged institutions.

The national department of education and the treasury clearly faced a conundrum; the historically disadvantaged did not have the capacity to benefit from a massive injection of funds, but the numerous ‘special development’ projects also could not capacitate them to become well-functioning universities.

But, as Jansen stresses, dysfunctionality is not just a matter of capacity, the African National Congress (the ruling party), the civil service and local government are all racked by corruption and dysfunctionality – this is a crucial issue Jansen avoids in his analysis.

UCT as case study

In conclusion: a vexing question. The University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa and Africa’s premier university according to international rankings, has entered a phase of dysfunctionality eerily reminiscent of the playbook of the dysfunctional universities.

News reports published articles in which they comment on the high-court interdict UCT obtained to halt the Student Representative Council’s protest action, mainly around student debt and excluded students.

The dean of the law faculty, Professor Danwood Mzikenge Chirwa, issued a statement on behalf of the law faculty in which he criticised the students for their lawless behaviour, accused the executive leadership of mishandling the situation and asserted that the “executive has continued to be complicit in institutionalising a culture of disruption of academic activities, harassment and assault of staff”.

During the contestations, an external council investigation was launched into the behaviour of the vice-chancellor and the chair of the UCT Council, Babalwa Ngonyama.

It was reported that the vice-chancellor had been offered an exit package accompanied by conditions of confidentiality but she has thus far refused the package.

And, earlier in the year, more than 80% of academic staff agreed for the first time in the history of UCT to go on strike over deadlocked wage negotiations.

So, will the strong academic core at UCT be able to stabilise the institution where many of the symptoms of a dysfunctional university described in Corrupted are rampant?

This unusual book is a must read for higher education scholars, for higher education practitioners, for politicians and for attentive citizens who are interested and concerned about the future of South African universities.

Corrupted: A study of chronic dysfunction in South African universities is published by Wits University Press. The book was launched in Cape Town on 22 February.

Nico Cloete is professor of higher education, SciSTIP (Department of Science and Innovation-National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy), Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He is also the chair of University World News Africa’s board.