Is Tertiary Education Becoming Compromised?

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Concerns have been raised regarding action the Department of Higher Education has yet to take, surrounding the chaos erupting within the system of Higher Education.


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Continuous student protests (since the second week of February 2023) have made headlines and disrupted tertiary education proceedings, only escalating further and showing no signs of slowing down.

The ongoing chaos has prompted the National Assembly to ask the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and the Minister of Higher Education regarding plans to deal with the matters at hand.

What began at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has now spread to other institutions across the country, including the University of the Western Cape (UWC), North West University (NWU), the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), and now Wits University.

The protests have all been similarly related, in regards to financial blocks/exclusions preventing some students from registering for the academic year or from receiving their results, as well as the increase in tuition fees, accommodation struggles, and issues related to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). 

The Parliamentary Committee has recently raised a few concerns with the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Blade Nzimande, regarding the current state of chaos tertiary institutions are currently finding themselves in.

Mr. Sanele Sethembeni Zondo, a member of the National Assembly, posed two questions to the Minister, the first one asking how the  Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) plans on developing "capable, well-educated and skilled citizens", in line with the Department's mandate in the midst of these "dysfunctions", and to prevent the possible "undermining of confidence in the Republic’s development trajectory". 

Zondo also asked how the ongoing "dysfunction" occurring at various universities and colleges will affect the legitimacy of qualifications distributed by the institutions. 

In response, the Minister has stated that the Department is responsible for the oversight of the Higher Education System, in line with the Higher Education Act. But ultimately, University Councils are the bodies responsible for the governance of institutions and "must ensure that they govern effectively to prevent any instances of fraud, maladministration, and corruption."

However, there are guidelines that stipulate when the Minister and the DHET will step in and become involved in a particular issue that has been raised, if the Minister feels that the matter is not adequately being addressed.

The Higher Education Act outlines and guides the circumstances that would result in the Minister intervening. 

"The Minister is also able to engage directly with University Councils where concerns have been raised directly with him. Councils of public higher education institutions complete an annual self-assessment scorecard in line with the Guidelines for Good Governance Practice and Indicators for Councils of South African Public Higher Institutions. The Department also monitors governance through an analysis of the annual reports of the institutions and assesses the overall effectiveness of governance in the system in relation to several issues," responded the Minister and the DHET. 

According to the Department, training for University Councils are also encouraged. 

"At the current moment one institution is under administration (Mangosuthu University of Technology) and independent assessments are underway at the University of South Africa and Central University of Technology. The Department has a watching brief on all institutions where governance challenges may arise," explained the Minister. 

Amongst the chaos of the protests, are the allegations of maladministration, fraud and corruption within institutions, and the "clear dysfunction of administration", said Zondo, as part of the first question asked. 

In relation to events that allege there is maladministration and corruption taking place at higher institutions of learning, the Department has developed policies and procedures which colleges and universities are obligated to comply with, as well as the requirement that institutions should adopt their own Code of Conduct. 

"For management and staff, there are disciplinary processes undertaken in terms of the Labour Relations Act in an event there are instances of maladministration, fraud, and corruption. For college [and university] councils, the Minister institutes an investigation in terms of section 46 (1) of the Continuing Education and Training Act, and where allegations are proved to be correct, the council is dissolved and the cases [are] referred to state law agencies," was the Department's response. 

Recently, one of the issues surrounding the ongoing student protests, is that accommodation fees are too expensive for students to afford.

This price hike has led to suspicion that private accommodation providers are increasing the cost of rent without proper authorisation and for their own benefit. 

In response to the second question raised by the National Assembly, the Minister answered that all universities and colleges are "100%" obligated to comply and implement examination rules and regulations; instances of irregularity and/or non-compliance will be investigated. Disciplinary processes will follow in time, if anyone is found to be implicated. 

The DHET explained that "the Department’s examinations and assessment processes are subjected to the quality assurance bodies such as UMALUSI, before results are issued. This institution ensures [and] conducts [a] robust review of the examination and assessment processes to ensure the credibility of examinations before resulting and certification." 

The Department ended of its response by stating that "the Council on Higher Education (CHE) is responsible in terms of the Higher Education Act for quality assurance of the higher education system and for qualification accreditation through the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC)." 

Student Representative Councils (SRCs) have been negotiating and working to resolve the current issues they're experiencing with their respective universities, alongside the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) who has also stepped in. 

 

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