The workers’ unions at the once prestigious University of Eswatini and management do not agree on what measures to take to save the institution from complete collapse. Management seeks to introduce austerity measures that could see massive retrenchments while the workers have called for a forensic audit of the institution’s financial affairs. They believe an investigation into how money has been spent and by who will help find a solution, writes NIMROD MABUZA.
To save the University of eSwatini, the kingdom’s national and largest tertiary institution, which is sinking under the weight of a financial crisis, government has hastily released a paltry E17 million of the E388.6 million subvention needed for the 2020/21 financial year.
The money was released in a desperate bid to salvage a looming crisis in which the institution needed a cash injection to honour its obligation such as paying staff salaries at the end of March.
Workers were paid late in March because the institution’s coffers had run dry.
That government paid a tranche of E17 million was revealed at a meeting in June between management and workers over payment of cost of living adjustment.
In response to questions from this publication, Registrar at the university, Dr Salebona Simelane said government later topped up the E17 million with a further E39 million “just before the end of the quarter.”
He said government has paid up everything for the first quarter.
The E17 million released by government for the university to run its operations is equal to the 2020/21 increase handed as a budget provision for King Mswati III and the royal household.
For over a decade now, since the 2008/09 financial year, the university has been living from hand to mouth. For the cash-strapped institution, the situation has moved from bad to uncontrollable levels.
As the university searches for a lasting solution on its financial problems, management and workers agree to disagree on the turnaround strategy.
On one hand, management is adamant on going ahead with austerity measures to cut down soaring expenditure. Workers, on the other hand, are unequivocal that austerity measures will not be effective unless the problems causing the financial crisis are clearly identified.
“While austerity measures are necessary the current austerity measures, in their current form, are rejected as they are not based on any empirical research,” said workers and academic staff associations in a petition to management.
They call on the university not to pretend that its dire financial position just dropped down from nowhere, hence their demand for a forensic investigation into the financial affairs of the university and for those responsible for the sorry state of affairs to be held accountable.
Workers argue that the manner the institution has set out to implement the austerity measures is diametrically opposed to what they desire to see. They are calling on the institution to do first what needs to be done; a forensic audit.
The austerity measures introduced might, amongst others, increase tuition fees which management believes are too low. The university contends it still “charges tuition fee which is lower than what some of the private secondary schools charge locally.”
The university charges slightly above E500 per credit subject which usually totals about E26 000 or more an academic year.
The university proposes to increase tuition fee by inflation rate. This, it says in a leaked document, would rake in around E8 million a year.
The cut down of staff may be unavoidable. But the administration is approaching the matter cautiously.
However, casual employees have already been chopped off and 26 cars from the university fleet were in December 2019 sold by public auction.
Clinic services for staff and students could also be affected. The institution wants to impose a charge of E30 for staff and E20 for students for healthcare services.
Rentals for staff houses could be increased to a minimum of E500 per month. Several other departments at the institution are to be affected by the austerity measures. The list is long.
What also irks the workers is the manner the austerity measures were introduced. They believe they are being dictated to rather than negotiated with. According to the workers, management sneaked in the austerity measures through the back door.
Said Lee Madzinane, an executive of the university’s workers union; “The austerity measures directly affect our members and when they (members) approach us, we have no answer to give them because we know nothing.”
Both the National Workers Union in Swaziland Higher Institutions (NAWUSHI) and the Association of Lecturers, Academic and Administrative Personnel (ALAAP) speak in one voice about the austerity measures.
They have implored management to appoint a forensic audit without delay.
In a joint petition, dated March 29, 2020, directed to the University Council, the workers’ representatives made their views known.
On the dire financial straits of the institution, they wrote: “Members are concerned about the university as a going concern, as it appears that the position of the university generally and financially is getting worse each year.
“This has had negative effect on the university as it runs a risk to fail to fulfil its obligations per its founding act and its statutes. We call upon forensic audit to be conducted on the university finances and liquidity as this may inform all stakeholders from a pragmatic view of the state of the university.”
On concerns on the future of the university, Dr Simelane was cautious, saying; “The University of Eswatini is an organization that was established by law to train much-needed human capital for the country and beyond.
“It would be a remiss of us not to appreciate the efforts shown by all our stakeholders in ensuring that the institution is funded year to year.
“The future presents itself with wide opportunities while we need to avoid possible pitfalls. In this regard, we are at planning stages which may be too early to disclose as there would be need for consultations within and without the structures of the university prior to their implementation.”
On February 20, 2020, NAWUSHI wrote to management expressing displeasure at the implementation of the austerity measures that, the union argues, are not only a negotiated arrangement but also grossly skewed against non-academic staff comprising the lowest of the low.
Dismayed at the implementation of the perceived lopsided austerity measures, the union wrote: “It is very astonishing to note that this exercise was targeted at one sector of the university (non-academic staff).
“There is no mention of the other sectors that is the academic staff and administrative staff. We, therefore, believe that there is injustice in the way this exercise was carried.
“This therefore led us to the conclusion that it is grossly unfair and constitutes unfair labour practice.
“It is our belief that had this exercise been conducted by an independent consultant it was going to cover all the sectors and come up with a professional report that will assist in coming up with implementable solutions not hypothesis that are not supported by any research.”
In September 2018, leaked documents show, the university approved a repackaged strategy by consultant George Mamaila.
Workers had rejected the strategy. Then newly appointment Prince David as chairperson of the University Council saved the day as he is said to have stopped its implementation to prevent a court challenge by the workforce.
But the stoppage was another financial drain. The university parted with about E90 000 as payment to Mamaila for work thrown to the garbage bin.
Workers say they rejected the strategy because they were not involved and were geared to challenge it in court.
In an interview, an impeccable source at the institution pointed out that the university, by refusing the call by workers for a forensic audit was self-destructive.
The source said the problems cannot go away by simply sweeping them under the carpet and added that there are people in management who are responsible for the current state affairs. They should be exposed.
In its letter to management, NAWUSHI reinforced these sentiments when it wrote: “The analysis has omitted areas where before there were red flags in expenditure. These areas include UNESWA’s Council expenditure, expenditure related to UNESWA’s management and administration.”
Adding weight to concerns raised by workers, the source cited as an example the retainer fee paid to the Chairperson of the University Council, said to be around E30 000 per month plus sitting allowances and other benefits, as too high.
Over the years, the number of council meetings has increased dramatically.
Some payments, it has been suggested, amounted to fraud as some officers paid had non-existing contracts or their term of office long-expired.
The payment of officers whose term of office had long expired also came out during the time of Dr Miranda Miles as chief executive officer of the UNESWA Foundation.
She did not stay long at the university after speaking out against the illegal office bearers.
An accusing finger was also pointed out at expenditure related to the office of the bursar, academic, library and registry departments.
Further punching holes into the austerity measures, NAWUSHI argued that the analysis failed to recognise that some of the departments targeted “do in fact derive some income from their operations but certain internal processes have become a hindrance to their progress.”
Wrote the union: “Departments such as refectory provide services to UNESWA departments who only submit forms to acquire the services but it seems that the funds that are supposed to be charged are never credited to the refectory as a department. The same with the transport department.”
Questions have also been raised on income generating sectors of the university such as its farms used to produce vegetables and dairy cows that produce milk.
On the financial position of the university and austerity measures, Dr Simelane was again cautious saying; “The University of Eswatini is an annual recipient of government funding in the form of subvention like many of the government parastatal organizations that are not for profit.
“It is well-documented elsewhere that the university is experiencing a perennial problem of underfunding. This has been going on throughout the last decade to date.
“Like most institutions in a similar situation as the one articulated above, the university is called upon to address its poor financial position. One of those could be the austerity measures with a view to containing expenditure.”
He added that some preliminary discussions around austerity measures were initiated, “but there is absolutely no decision that was taken to make job cuts… I am not aware of any employee whose position is targeted under the banner of austerity measures.”
Dr Simelane allayed fears of job losses by workers’ associations saying for now there is nothing on the table yet as to the number of employees that may be affected by austerity measures.
He was cautious not to dismiss the idea of retrenchments altogether.
“Yes, we auctioned 26 cars in December, 2019. That was with a view to containing costs, yet leaving enough vehicles for use at the institution.
“There were more vehicles left after the auction than the number of drivers who were on the ground at the time. I hasten to say that it doesn’t mean that each driver was allocated to a specific vehicle.
“All the drivers who were at the university in December, 2019 remained in post. Some have since proceeded on retirement and that is very normal.”
Chancellor of the university, King Mswati III is on record calling on the institution to strive for self-sufficiency.