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By Getrude Makhafola

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UCT: Government ready to step in as strike, investigations rock Africa’s top university

The Higher Education Department will intervene should the UCT council miss its deadline on the report.


Government has expressed concern at the tumultuous developments at the University of Cape Town (UCT), but said its hands are tied and can only act after receiving a requested report from the UCT council. Ranked number one on the continent, UCT is grappling with governance failure allegations, a first-ever strike by its academic staff and its online high school that has reportedly become a headache for its pupils and parents. Minister 'to step in' if council fails The Department of Higher Education and Training on Monday said it has to follow the Higher Education Act before taking any action to…

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Government has expressed concern at the tumultuous developments at the University of Cape Town (UCT), but said its hands are tied and can only act after receiving a requested report from the UCT council.

Ranked number one on the continent, UCT is grappling with governance failure allegations, a first-ever strike by its academic staff and its online high school that has reportedly become a headache for its pupils and parents.

Minister ‘to step in’ if council fails

The Department of Higher Education and Training on Monday said it has to follow the Higher Education Act before taking any action to avoid possible court action by the council.

The department deals directly with the council only on university issues.

Spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi said UCT wrote to the department, requesting a deadline extension. He added that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande could be forced to act should the council fail to meet the deadline.

Nzimande last year requested a full report after the council upheaval over governance issues and the alleged conduct of Vice-Chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng and council chairperson Babalwa Ngonyama.

“Last year we did indicate that the minister is very concerned about UCT and has requested a council report on what is perceived from a distance, such as some members of council not agreeing on issues of governance.

“The minister’s response will depend on what the report says. If council fails to deal with the situation then the minister could send independent assessors and provide their report on the state of the institution,” said Mnisi.

UCT could be placed under administration

He said UCT could find itself under administration should the council fail in its duties.

“If they don’t send the report then it means they are not complying with the Act. The minister will then unilaterally decide on the future of the university. We are concerned and are going to do something about UCT, and that could happen around February or March.

“We are aware that the council is meeting frequently to try to work out the issues, that is commendable. But if they cannot deal with the issue themselves, unfortunately, the minister will have to step in, in accordance with the legal instruments.”

READ MORE: UCT crisis: SRC, black academics back planned probe

The Citizen asked Universities South Africa (USAf) CEO Dr Phethiwe Matutu whether the events unfolding at the university raised any concerns for the vice-chancellors’ body.

She said her organisation only dealt with matters raised by vice-chancellors as a collective.

“We are a representative body for universities, so there are certain aspects that we work on and some that we don’t and allow individual universities to attend to.

“When they mandate us as a collective that we look into, we do. But if there’s whatever issue happening at UCT or other institutions, the Higher Education and Training Department assists the institution with governance and management imperatives and the minister, on advice from council, determines what to do.

“Otherwise for us, that is not our role. Ours is for when vice-chancellors come together and decide to tackle an issue collectively,” Matutu said.

Ranking processes ‘unfair’

Regarding the possible drop in global ranking for UCT because of the developments that could affect academic output, Matutu said the rankings were “arguable”.

“The whole ranking process is supposed to be fair. However, some of the things focused on areas that some universities don’t concern themselves with.

“For example, Rhodes doesn’t focus on rankings. If you see a Rhodes University ranking, you must know that that ranking house got its information from websites, and newspapers, and not from Rhodes.”

One of Rhodes University’s goals, said Matutu, was to advance the communities around teaching and learning, and that no ranking house used that in its processes as part of its work.

“Other institutions have an interest in rankings as long as they are cited up there, otherwise they would not have an interest when they are not cited. So rankings depend on what institutions concentrate on.

“Some are in the rankings because of the number of awards they received. You are just basically discriminated against. Lately, there have been rankings looking into the developmental agenda, and that sounds like a much better measurement rather than just chasing a ranking if you are outside of developmental work.”

Vice-chancellors, as accounting officers of their respective institutions, constitute the USAf board.

Academic staff to strike for first time ever

As students prepare for the start of the new academic year, UCT faces an imminent strike by academics, the first in the university’s 200-year history.

The Academics Union (AU) says 87% of its members voted in favour of downing tools to demand at least a 6% salary increase, which it said was being offered by other institutions.

UCT offered a 3% pay increase for 2023.

“We find it hard that UCT, as one of the premier universities, is unable to match the pay increase offered by other universities. The insult of the 3% pay offer is compounded by the university having budgeted for a R183 million increase in student financial aid, a 106% increased compared to 2022.

“This is not greed from UCT academic staff. We have emerged from a harrowing and stressful time of moving to online teaching and learning during Covid, and this offer would see our members 4% worse off in real terms,” said AU head of salary bargaining team, Kelley Moult.

For Phakeng and Ngonyama, their future at UCT will depend on the findings of a judicial panel, whose members are yet to be named.

The panel was appointed to start the probe into their conduct, following the council’s approval of terms of reference in October.

Phakeng was accused of overseeing an exodus of academics and, according to the former UCT ombudsman Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa’s scathing report, the vice-chancellor allegedly deployed bullying tactics and unfair treatment while silencing and undermining others.

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