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Response to the report of the independent assessors

The Vaal University of Technology welcomes the publishing of the report of the independent assessors appointed by the Minister of Higher Education and Training (appointed 1 May 2019) to investigate concerns of poor governance, leadership, management, corruption and fraud, and the misuse of university human and financial resources. Having studied the report, the administrator appointed to stabilise and turn the university around will now confer with the Minister on each of the 13 recommendations made in the report (see Government Gazette Vol. 656, No. 43015, Part 1 of 3. 14 February 2020. See list of recommendations at the end of this statement).

Earlier in September 2019, the independent assessors appointed by the Minister of Higher Education and Training submitted their interim report with findings and recommendations to turn around the Vaal University of Technology (VUT), which at the time, was said to be in such a state of collapse that an urgent and deep intervention was required to address poor and dysfunctional leadership, governance and management in all sectors of the university.

At the time, the institution was unable to advance its mission and protect its human and financial resources made available by the state and donors, and was failing to provide quality education for its students. This was an unsustainable situation that had been ongoing for some time, exacerbated by indifference, fear of possible retribution, secrecy, collusion and factionalism.

Stepping into the role of administrator mid-August 2019, Professor Ihron Rensburg, immediately made an impact.

* The Vice Chancellor was placed on special leave on 1 October and retired from the University on 31 December 2019.

* A new executive director of logistics and procurement was appointed and on-boarded, as was a director of student housing and accommodation at the beginning of 2020.* Appointments to other mission-critical positions are under way, and two Deputy Vice Chancellors (for teaching and learning; and research, innovation and technology transfer), and the Chief Financial Officer will join the university from 1 April 2020.* Internal and external auditors have been appointed, and the internal audit plan has been reviewed and approved and is being implemented.* Disciplinary actions have been initiated against those members of staff implicated for fraud and corruption by various forensic investigations.* The University Strategic Plan was approved, and catalytic initiatives and performance agreements put in place to fast-track its implementation.* The various layers of management decision-making have been streamlined to secure effective decision-making, accountability and performance.* Outstanding payments from NSFAS in excess of R300 million have now been paid, thus improving the university's cash flow position.

Explains Professor Rensburg: "As a result of the Assessors Interim Report, and now affirmed by their final report, as well as lessons learnt from previous unsuccessful administration periods, a two-year stabilisation and turnaround plan is now firmly in place and implementation is well under way. It is planned that a new, smaller and competent council will be in place, following members' induction, with the handover from the administrator planned for between 1 March 2021 and 31 July 2021."

Professor Rensburg is also tackling the pervasiveness of non-performance, lack of accountability, absence of consequence management, upward management and long-term suspensions of senior managers, and notes: "A revitalised, dynamic, competent, caring, accountable, high-performing and ethical leadership is essential to guide this important national institution into the future. Reviews of the current management, including deans and heads of departments, from post levels two to six, to establish their competence, commitment and contribution to the university's vision and strategic plan, which could result in some changes, will be completed by the end of March 2020."

Continues Professor Rensburg: "All management personnel in post levels one to six, including the executive deans and heads of academic departments, will be required to undergo an annual lifestyle audit and declaration of conflicts of interest."

Critical academic and student housing infrastructure is receiving attention, from neglected basic maintenance to the fast-tracked completion of the Life and Physical Sciences building, new plans for the Engineering and Technology, and Teacher Education buildings, and a 12-month rapid upgrade of our dilapidated student residences. The purchase, with significant state support, of a top-notch private student residence with 1 836 rooms right next to the Vanderbilpark campus will bring much-needed relief to the shortage of university-provided student accommodation. And implementation of the accreditation system for private student residence providers will be completed at the beginning of 2021. In this manner, the phasing out of the high-cost and high-risk lease agreements with many of these residence providers will also be completed.

"There is still much to be done. The university has grown significantly since 2004, which underlines that while it is battling to overcome a plethora of historical impediments - and will overcome these - the university has a series of sought-after programme and research offerings. With the collaboration and collective efforts of all stakeholders, internal and external to the university, we can only go from strength to strength from here on," concludes Rensburg.

The Assessors Report makes 13 recommendations:

* The stakeholder and consensus-seeking approach needs to be revisited, and a more transparent system of recruiting member of council devised.* With the view that the Vice-Chancellor, Prof GN Zide, has been incapable of giving strategic leadership to the university, to offer credible and effective management; the future of his employment at the university needs to be re-assessed.* The current crop of leadership at Post Levels 1-3 must be retired or redeployed, and new critical leadership be found to guide the university into the future; though reviewing each of the members of the Senior Executive Management and Executive Managers and Executive Deans to test their contribution to the university and whether they have a vision consonant with the future of the university.* All management personnel in Post Levels 1-4 and the Executive Deans must be subjected to an annual lifestyle audit and declaration of conflict of interest.* With the experiences of this period consistent since about 2006, the selection of a new council must be undertaken wth care. Membership of council must be vetted, with due diligence as well as probity undertaken in order to weed out opportunistic elements from the university.* The council size must be reduced, probably limiting membership of council to 20, by removing, in particular, those who join council in a representative capacity and decreasing council membership from internal staff. The commanding presence of internal members of council never benefits the proper running of council affairs.* The administrator should request the assistance of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to investigate activities of a number of university officials such as the Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, everyone involved in supply chain management, infrastructure and logistics, as well as in student services, security and campus protection, and former student leaders, over a long period of time; and ensure the criminal elements, if found to be guilty of wrongdoing, are charged and go to jail.* A new institutional statute should be drafted such that accountability measures are clarified, especially clarifying the roles of structures, not least the role of the registrar. The Institutional Statute must also design a new method of recruiting the Vice-Chancellor to minimise both the opportunity for politicising the appointment of the VC and to protect it from capture by vested interest.

* The supply chain management policy must provide that any supplier that is found to be engaged in any corrupt activities or found to have been so engaged in previous years, will not only be disqualified and blacklisted at VUT, but also from all universities in South Africa, and reported to the police in terms of the Prevention of Corrupt Practices Act.* Given the finding that this lamentable state had become possible through large-scale collusion between some criminal elements within the university and many of its suppliers, it is recommended that every supplier who won a tender in the past be required to make a declaration of their participation in shady dealings against the university. Any who are found to have had shady dealings and who were awarded tenders should be required to cease operations and be removed from the list of suppliers. Thereafter, a warning should be inserted in all conditions of tender that, should it be found that a tender was won by unlawful or irregular means, or by participation in any scheme, the effect of which would be to corruptly and unjustly cost the university more than what it would otherwise have cost to undertake the service, or have participated in kickbacks or in forms of unjust enrichment at the expense of the university will be reported to the relevant authorities to be prosecuted.* An office of the university ombudsman that must be independent of management and council should be established. Moreover, a whistleblower fraud hotline must be established as a matter of urgency.* That management must undertake a regular barometer on institutional culture at the university, as well as establish an ethics directorate.

The above recommendations address the critical questions that have crippled the university: the manner of appointment of the Vice Chancellor, the manner of appointment of members of council, the role of council, supply chain management, the quality of the academic provision at the university, the rot in the institution runs deep and that is aided and supported by a number of participants inside and outside the university.

The administrator, Professor Rensburg, will review and align his plan of action to implement recommendations of the final report, as he had already begun working on the initial plan based on the interim report.

It is important to note that the administrator was ahead of time in addressing key and critical challenges outlined in this report and has started delivering on them.

Professor Ihron RensburgVUT Administrator