Shut university to allow reform, says assessor

October 27, 2000

A government-appointed independent assessor has recommended that South Africa's University of the North be closed temporarily to allow the institution to restructure, develop new policies and weed out incompetent staff and disruptive students.

The university is among seven higher education institutions that have been investigated by assessors or the auditor-general in the past two years. Others are the universities of Fort Hare, Venda, Zululand, Transkei, the North West and the Medical University of South Africa.

All seven are historically disadvantaged institutions suffering fee debt and financial crises, falling student numbers, mismanagement and sometimes corruption. Students collectively owe R660 million (£60 million) in fees. The largest fee debt, R113 million, is at the University of the North.

The report on the university published last week by assessor Thandabantu Nhlapo recommends that education minister Kader Asmal send in a team to restructure the institution, with or without the support of its council.

During 72 interviews on campus, the assessor found that staff morale was at rock bottom, little work was being done, corruption was rife and factionalism and personal hostilities were destructive.

Closing the university, he said, "would mark, practically and symbolically, a new start or a rebirth as nothing else could". It would allow intensive restructuring of all sectors and the development of new policies and systems.

Mr Nhlapo proposed that staff and students reapply for jobs or admission under new rules so the university could stamp out incompetence and disruptiveness. He also said the salaries of senior managers need to be reduced.

An alternative to closing the university was the appointment of an administrator for at least six months. Vice-chancellor Biki Minyuku is suspended on full pay, and Mr Nhlapo said there was overwhelming support for a new leader.

The report has been sent to the university's council, which is expected to respond by early November. Professor Asmal will then decide what steps to take.

Earlier this year, the government expressed concern about the viability of several of the universities under investigation because of poor financial controls.

The auditor-general reported that Fort Hare had run up a bank overdraft of more than R40 million in 1997 and that this continued borrowing had consumed a large portion of its investment. Transkei had used all its cash and investment funds by 1998.

Venda, which in 1995 was found to have a funding level 172 per cent higher than the normal operating cost of a South African university, failed to act on a government request for it to comply with norms by the end of 1999. The auditor-general also said there was also a serious lack of internal financial control and a possible misuse of funds.

In January, an auditor-general's report warned that the University of the North West would face bankruptcy if it did not cut costs in line with its reduced income. It also found irregularities in financial management.

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