At the final ordinary sitting on 20 October, the Board of Directors of Universities South Africa (USAf) acknowledged that corruption had reached endemic levels in the country. Concerning accounts emerging from the Zondo Commission on State Capture, and to reports from the Auditor-General on the extent of corruption uncovered in the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) to the State, vice-chancellors noted a possibility that universities might well be involved in corrupt activities.
One member cited, as an example, the R10m claimed fraudulently by NSFAS students from the national CoVID-19 relief fund. Other members said they could not rule out the possible involvement of individuals within the university sector in the CoVID-19 PPE scandal.
The 27 members of the USAf Board (including the USAf CEO) therefore reached a consensus to root out corruption in all its forms from the higher education sector. To that end, they would take action on any corrupt activity they would pick up evidence of, at their institutions.
Vice-chancellors also agreed to issue a joint statement declaring their joint position in this regard.
Uncertainty around tuition fees regulation continue to concern the USAf Board
The Board of Directors was alerted to the Department of Higher Education and Training’s plan to announce its position on tuition fee increases for 2021, at the end of October.
While some members said an increase speculated at 4.6% was understandable, given the current economic situation, they expressed concerns over delays in publishing the Fee Regulatory Framework report even though a report had been completed six months ago by a DHET-USAf working group. In DHET’s defence, the USAf CEO impressed upon his peers that it was an enormous step to sign that report into regulation and to gazette it at a time when so much of attention was being paid to the crisis caused by the CoViD-19 pandemic.
The Board, therefore, noted that the DHET envisaged having the Fee Regulatory Framework in place by March 2021 for consultation with stakeholders, and subsequent implementation during 2022. The Board mandated the Funding Strategy Group to continue with their engagements with the DHET on this matter, and to express the urgency of putting the Framework in place to ensure some policy stability, in the future.
Impact of COVID-19 on enrolment plans of universities
Another member tabled to the Board, a concern that institutions might not be able to meet the enrolment plans for 2021 that had been agreed with the DHET. Government’s plan to only release the National School Certificate examinations results in February was the most significant factor in this regard, coupled with some parents’ inability now, to fund the education of their children, due to COVID-19-related loss of livelihoods and income. The member cautioned of a need to a) manage those negative impacts while b) managing DHET’s expectations in this regard.
The Board made a decision to prioritise a discussion with the DHET on this matter, which was consensually seen as a priority that could not wait till 2021.
While some institutions were concerned that they would not meet their planned enrolment quotas, the University of Cape Town reported an extraordinary situation of a record-high number of applications. The UCT Vice-Chancellor said they were still trying to understand why the demand for spaces was much higher for 2021, in comparison to previous years. One possible reason was the inability of some parents, of late, to enrol their children in overseas institutions on account of COVID-19 complexities. UCT would continue to monitor the situation.
Students’ COVID-19-risky behaviour on campuses under the spotlight
The Board noted that the USAf CEO had had successful meetings with the South African Association of Senior Student Professions (SASSAP), Higher Health and the South African Union of Students, on developing a social compact to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in institutions of higher education. The compact aims to advocate for and reinforce behavioural protocols such as safe hygiene, wearing masks and social distancing that universities have championed since the onset of COVID-19 in South Africa in March. The compact would focus on the importance of building a social solidarity approach to managing the pandemic and to build universities’ capacity for social agency.
Subsequent to the meeting of 20 October, the Board received reports of a COVID-19 outbreak at the East London-based campuses of the University of Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu University. Reports from the two institutions were acknowledging that on the 3rd, 10th and 17th October, some of their students had attended parties which were hosted in clubs and taverns in the Quigney neighbourhood of East London, in an environment devoid of compliance with Covid-19 health and safety protocols. Reportedly, as many as 300 students had attended these events. As a result, UFH and WSU were now contending with rising numbers of COVID-19 cases.
At Fort Hare, new cases were first spotted among Nursing students and subsequently among Law, Management and Commerce students. At the last count on 21 October, 56 UFH students had tested positive. Provincial health structures were assisting with bulk testing at the two institutions.
These reports heightened the fears of vice-chancellors, that students are not heeding the call to uphold the safety protocols widely communicated across the system. The vice-chancellors of all 26 institutions agreed to work jointly to curb students’ reckless behaviour, and to prevent any further outbreaks.
It was decided that the first step in that direction would be to publish a joint statement condemning this behaviour. This statement was published on 22 October. Following a USAf submission to the DHET on universities’ concerns regarding a 100% return of students to some campuses (especially since the government relaxed lockdown to Levels 2 and 1, respectively), USAf awaited further DHET guidelines on the way forward for universities.
Meanwhile, the draft social compact in development would be circulated to all campuses in the near future, for sector-wide implementation.
USAf’s operational plan and budget increase for 2021 approved
The Board approved the operational plan of the USAf Office for 2021. USAf’s operational plan encompasses strategic and transversal projects implemented by the Office of the CEO in consultation with the Executive Committee (of seven vice-chancellors); co-ordination and implementation of priorities of USAf’s five strategy groups and communities of practice in 2021, as well as the implementation of operational plans within USAf programmes, namely, the Matriculation Board, the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme and the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme. These projects will be detailed on the USAf website in time in due course.
Further to the operational plan, the Board endorsed a budget increase of 2,1% for 2021. The USAf office runs on annual membership fees paid by all 26 member universities as a percentage of their annual subsidy amounts received from the State.
Concerns were raised, from some quarters, about the justification for this increase, given that the DHET had stated categorically, that universities’ subsidies were up for a cut in 2021. A suggestion was made to utilise USAf financial reserves to keep operations going, as an alternative to raising membership fees. In response, the Chairperson of the Finance and Investment Committee, Professor Francis Petersen, said the fees increase was recommended to enhance the sustainability of the USAf Office and its operations. In support of that position, another vice-chancellor added that in the event of USAf shutting down, the reserves would fund the implementation of Section 189 of the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995, which regulates payment of retrenchment/severance packages for employees.
The Board applauds outcomes of USAf’s fundraising efforts in 2020
The USAf Board noted, with appreciation, the total of R328million worth of funding raised from both sector education and training agencies (SETAs) and the banking sector in 2020. The grants received were explicitly in support of universities in the form of tuition fees for vulnerable students and those in the missing middle category, and also for the capacity development of academics.
The Board congratulated Dr Linda Meyer (right), Director: Operations and Sector Support for having taken the lead in this fundraising initiative.
The contributing entities were:
- ABSA, with an R6million sponsorship of learning devices for vulnerable students at seven universities;
- The Standard Bank Group’s R3million sponsorship of learning devices, data bundles and food vouchers for vulnerable students at six “high risk” universities;
- The Safety and Security Sector Education and Training Agency (SASSETA) with an R5.4million grant towards tuition fees of 77 students, mostly postgraduates, in the fields of Law, Psychology or Social Work;
- SASSETA’s subsequent additional grants of R4.9million for student bursaries and R1.9million towards sponsoring learnerships leading to the National Certificate: General Security Practices;
- The Education, Training and Development Practices SETA (ETDP SETA) with an R280 million grant towards bursaries of missing middle students. R200m of that grant was marked for 7000 undergraduates and R80m for 2500 postgraduate students;
- The ETDP SETA had also entered into an MoU with USAf, over an R35million grant earmarked for the University Lecturer Development Programme for the 2021/22 financial year. This will benefit 100 master trainers and 900 lecturers.
Tributes to Professor Adam Habib at his last USAf Board meeting
Professor Sibongile Muthwa, the USAf Chair, drew the House’s attention to the fact that this was the last time Professor Adam Habib was attending the USAf Board meeting as a member – following his resignation from the vice-chancellorship of Wits.
On the invitation of the Chair to address this matter, Professor Wim de Villiers, the USAf Deputy Chairperson, lauded Professor Habib for having served the higher education sector exceptionally well “as a fearless strategist.” Referring to Professor Habib’s new role as Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London as of 1 January 2021, Professor de Villiers said “their gain in London is our loss, but we hope to still interact with him in future. On my own behalf, and on behalf of the USAf Board, we all wish him farewell.”
Five other vice-chancellors posted their tributes to Professor Habib on the zoom platform.
In response, Professor Habib expressed appreciation for all sentiments shared. He introduced his successor at Wits, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, who is set to take over the reins at WITS as of 1 January 2021. “Zeblon, these are the people that you will be in the trenches with, for the coming years,” he said. In the twilight of an illustrious career in South Africa’s higher education, Professor Habib said he was doing this on multiple platforms as part of his handover. Turning to his peers in the virtual room, he pleaded: “Please be gentle to him, in his honeymoon.”
Professor Adam Habib will be missed for exceptional contribution to South Africa’s higher education sector.
Appreciation of USAf secretariat services
The Board once again commended the USAf Office, specifically the Senior Manager in the CEO’s Office, Ms Jana van Wyk, for excellently recorded minutes. Dr Mabizela went further to express his appreciation of the secretariat services rendered by the Project Manager in Operations and Sector Support, Ms Janet van Rhyn. He singled out Ms Van Rhyn’s contribution to anchoring deliberations of the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group and impeccable minute-taking. He also recognised the value derived from the Higher Education Leadership and Management and the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education programmes, courtesy of Drs Norah Clarke and Oliver Seale, respectively.
The Chair echoed these sentiments.
- The Board hears out BSA on A New Inclusive Economic Growth for South Africa
The Board welcomed a two-person delegation from Business for South Africa (B4SA), comprising Mr Cas Coovadia, the CEO of BUSA, and Mr Martin Kingston, B4SA’s Deputy President. Working from a premise that South Africa’s economic recovery from COVID-19 and growth beyond the pandemic would require a comprehensive strategy inclusive of all sectors, the B4SA delegation were sharing with USAf, the input they had been engaging various government departments on, and which they had also presented to the State President. They acknowledged that the President had gone on to incorporate some of their proposals in his recently announced Economic Recovery Plan.
The gist of the BSA message was that COVID-19 had devastated South Africa’s already weak economy. The country needed a compelling and stable environment to attract investment and drive growth & employment. Recovery required a social and economic compact between all sectors, and that all sectors, Higher Education included, needed to get involved in strategies focussed on shared prosperity.
Given the detailed presentation and the short time there was for engagement – in the context of the detailed agenda for the day — the Board accepted this as a beginning of a series of necessary engagements in this regard. The Board decided that the B4SA delegation would be invited back for more meaningful engagements from early 2021.
- Updates from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme
Vice-Chancellors also got to hear a detailed update report from the NSFAS Administrator, Dr Randall Carolissen, who announced that his term was coming to an end on 31 December, 2020. His presentation to the Board covered a number of matters of concern to universities, including the increasing demand for student funding post-COVID 19; 2020 Statistics and challenges; Post Administrator Arrangements; Historic debt; Policy intervention and innovation; the Laptop project and Direct payments to students.
Vice-Chancellors got to engage the NSFAS Administrator for clarity on numerous outstanding matters.
- The Board embraces the formation of an engagement platform of university chancellors
The Board also heard of an intention by chancellors of our universities to start an informal engagement platform aimed at playing a more meaningful role in higher education beyond their ceremonial functions. A debate ensued, with some members decrying possible encroachment into an executive management role. In contrast, others argued that these were influential people with potential to play a non-executive advocacy role. Another view was that chancellors could lend a hand in fundraising and sourcing adequate funding for universities.
In the end, the USAf Board embraced this idea. They recognised it as coming from a good place, initiated by people who evidently understood their role and limitations. The idea of a once-a-year get-together with vice-chancellors was broached and accepted, with Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria, offering to host the first engagement at UP’s Future Africa Campus and research facility.
- Way forward with mobile network operators (MNOs)
Following reports that some network operators were cancelling their contracts with universities, with special provisions for emergency online teaching and learning, the Board mandated the USAf Office to take a sectoral approach in getting to the bottom of this matter. While the CEO was of the view that the zero-rated university sites continued to enjoy the agreed concessions, some vice-chancellors preferred to get formal assurance in this regard.
- The impact of POPIA on qualifications verification
Yet more concerns were tabled before the Board regarding the potential impact of the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) of 2013 on universities’ verification of qualifications. The University of the Western Cape’s Vice-Chancellor said the Law Faculty at his institution had raised concerns over the impact of POPIA on:
Their agreement with MIE, the background screening and vetting company, which screens students on several matters not limited to qualifications;
Their ability to screen information with other clients; and
Their ability to transfer people’s personal information across borders including to countries with no information protection laws, and implications thereof, on POPIA.
Professor Bawa, the USAf, CEO, said several qualification verification bodies had raised similar concerns regarding POPIA. He would follow up on these matters and advise the Board in due course.
- Insurance policy on the cards, for NSFAS students
The Board also heard that the South African Union of Students had drafted a proposal on a student insurance policy targeted specifically at NSFAS students. At a meeting held earlier in the month with the USAf EXCO, the SAUS President had positioned the idea as funeral insurance that would enable decent funerals for students perishing at universities. The idea had since been broadened to also include other students and to incorporate other risk areas.
The dominant opinion in the Board was that universities could not get involved in such a scheme. Some members felt that institutions were already carrying social responsibilities for vulnerable students. Another view was that students, as young adults, were not necessarily at such risk as to warrant such a scheme while others felt that public or institutional resources could not finance this venture.
In the end, the Board noted that student bodies still needed to apply a lot of thought to this idea. SAUS had already engaged NSFAS on the matter. They planned to table the matter to the DHET, next. As Professor Bawa clarified that the matter remained between student organisations and NSFAS, Professor Muthwa added that this idea was still in its infancy. It was being tabled to the Board for information. The Board would be kept in the loop about further developments in this regard; again for information purposes.
Decisions concerning governance committees
Considering that the term of office of five members of this Committee was due to expire on 31 December 2020 and that a call for nominations had not yet been issued, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, as the Chair of this Committee, requested an extension of the tenure of those members to 31 March 2021. The Board approved the extension, but rather to 31 July to afford more time to the Committee to get its affairs in order. The members benefitting from this extension are:
- Professor Cheryl Foxcroft (Nelson Mandela University)
- Professor Sarah Howie (Stellenbosch University)
- Dr Cila Myburgh (University of Pretoria)
- Dr Dan Mokoena (Vaal University of Technology)
- Ms Carol Crosley (University of the Witwatersrand).
The Board also approved an increase by 8%, of fees charged for processing exemption certificates, by the Matriculation Board, as of January 2021.
Audit and Risk Committee
The Board approved the proposed Operational Risk Register and the Strategic Risk Register for 2020/2021.
Members also noted the concerns raised by the Audit and Risk Committee on the conduct of PricewaterhouseCoopers in the past few years.
Human Resources and Remuneration Committee
The Board approved an inflation-related annual salary adjustment for staff at the USAf Office, at 4,6% across the board, for 2021.
Decisions concerning strategy groups
All strategy groups presented reports to the Board of Directors, on their performance, in 2020, on the priority areas approved by the Board in 2019. In addition to reporting, all strategy groups presented new focus areas for 2021 for the approval of the Board.
Funding Strategy Group
Professor Tawana Kupe, this Group’s Chair, said the issue of the financial sustainability of universities is more significant than the organisation might have previously fathomed. He said the less than adequate funding of the university sector has become sharper than ever before, rendering USAf strategies to curb this situation, and the sequencing thereof, more crucial than ever. This made the Tuition Fees Regulatory Framework, higher education salaries and all related issues, matters of priority, as was the issue of inequality in the sector. Professor Kupe said his Group was contemplating a series of workshops in the short to medium term, where these issues would be unravelled and articulated. He concluded that even the Presidential Economic Recovery Plan suggested South Africa could not achieve any economic recovery without a focus on the higher education sector.
Thus, the following were approved as the FSG priorities for 2021:
- Study on the long-term financial sustainability of the higher education sector
- Sustainable financial support for students
- Updating of regulations for reporting, including dashboard financial indicators for the sector;
- Updating of the Higher Education Price Index
- Funding for student accommodation and other university infrastructure; and
- The Fee Regulatory Framework
Research and Innovation Strategy Group
The Board noted from the RISG that the 6th edition of the biennial Research and Innovation Dialogue, which was due in 2020, had been carried over to 2021. The RISG was optimistic that it could host the meeting face-to-face with limited numbers in 2021, complemented by online streaming. Two themes were agreed for this meeting: a) The Impact of COVID-19 on Research, Postgraduate Studies and Internationalisation and b) Ethical research and integrity.
Other priorities of the RISG, approved for 2021, were:
- Open Science and Open access
- Building platforms for collaboration across the sector and internationally
- Transformation and capacity development
- Funding for postgraduate studies and research and
- Research infrastructure in the current context
Teaching and Learning Strategy Group
The Chair of the TLSG pointed out that student mental health is an integral part of student success, and that they would be paying attention to findings of an ongoing study in the sector. In addition to reporting for the year, the TLSG presented the following as their priorities for 2021:
- Transforming the curriculum; decolonisation / increased employability, etc.
- Optimising technologies to improve the quality of teaching and learning;
- Understanding and enabling student success and retention; and
- Improving the quality and scholarship of teaching and learning through academic staff development.
These priorities were all approved.
Transformation Strategy Group
The Board noted that the term of office of Professor Mandla Makhanya as UNISA’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal was coming to an end in December 2020.
In an unrelated matter, it approved the TSG’s request to appoint Professor Andre Keet to its membership, to strengthen its capacity. The Group added that the term of office of Professor Keet in the Ministerial Oversight Transformation Committee had ended. Appointing him to the TSG, therefore, posed no conflict of interest.
The TSG’s priorities were approved as follows for 2021:
- The reconstruction of institutional culture by focussing on the design of universities around our students and staff, with emphasis on residences and the curriculum;
- Establishing a national project to theorise and to build models of universities that are seriously engaged in the local context in which they find themselves;
- National Higher Education Conference 2021;
- Review of practices related to people with disabilities in higher education with a view to improving responses;
- Positively influencing higher education sector responses to gender-based violence; and
- Inequalities highlighted by COVID-19.
World of Work Strategy Group
Acknowledging the WSG’s detailed report from 2020, the Board noted that the Group’s priorities for 2021 would only be presented to the Board at its first-quarter sitting in 2021.
As the Board meeting adjourned, on 20 October, the Chair, Professor Sibongile Muthwa, cautioned of a possibility of an extraordinary meeting before March 2021, taking into consideration the concerns raised during the last meeting of 2020, and the unfinished business of the day.