UNESWA survival in doubt

UNESWA survival in doubt

By Nimrod Mabuza

The University of Eswatini is insolvent. That means it is bankrupt. All indications are that it is non-functional. However, it strides on despite the impossible situation it finds itself. In truth, this means every student who enrols at the university cannot say, with certainty that he or she will complete whatever course enrolled for.

When Lindelwa* enrolled for an LLB at the University of Eswatini in 2018, she had high hopes that five years down the line, she would be ready to face the world after graduating from the institution of higher learning.

She was live to the fact that there was a possibility that she may join the high number of young people who cannot find jobs in this country’s faltering economy.

Youth unemployment is at over 50% eSwatini.

What looked like a promising future back in 2018 now looks like a distant pipedream as each day that passes by brings uncertainty over her future as the university is struggling to survive.

That should speak to the quality of its products.

Auditor General, Timothy Matsebula is not convinced on the future of the university, which in years back, rated amongst the best in Africa.

The institution’s financial problems have been there for many years now, having started to show in the 2008/09 financial year when government decided it could no longer afford the university adequate funding because of shortage of funds.

There has always been hope that the situation would improve.

Those in the know say the financial problems at the university came to a head in the financial year of 2008/09

Grinding slowly on with constant delays on payment of salaries and perennial non-remittance of funds deducted from employees, the uncertainty over the future of the institution has been growing too.

Then, Covid-19 came in March 2020 amid learning interruptions by student protests for one reason or the other. 

The institution was forced to shut down for the duration of the Covid-19 outbreak. The pandemic continued for two years and the institutions had to resort to online learning. But the online learning was not smooth sailing. 

The civil unrest that hit the country in June 2021 further compounded the shaky learning process as government shut down the internet.

Three years down the line, just when learning was returning to normal, the institution of higher learning was hit by a fully-paid workers strike where non-academic and academic staff downed tools demanding improved wages. 

The strike dragged on for almost two months. The strike has since been called off.

On the first day of re-opening, students were hit by a serious shortage of water that dragged for almost two days.

The dormitories are falling apart with malfunctioning toilets.

Uncertainty over the future of the kingdom’s leading institution of higher learning looms larger than ever before.

Ms Lindelwa* is one of thousands of students at the UNESWA who are faced with an uncertain future.

The institution of higher learning is in financial quagmire and with government’s lacklustre attitude on salvaging it, the future is not guaranteed. 

In 2022, the Auditor General declared the institution as technically insolvent. Early in the year, Bursar at the university, Mfan’uzile Dlamini also stated that the university is technically insolvent.

The AG had warned of an uncertain future if the university continued to rely on subvention from government. 

But over the years, it has proven difficult for the university to raise enough funds on its own, hence the reliance on government.

The institution is laden with a huge monthly bill of over E40 million for salaries. The amount increased as of end of May after workers demanded improved wages.

The institution has about 300 academic and administrative staff. The university’s huge wage bill is a crippling factor because after payments it is left with absolutely nothing for operations.

A leaked document on the financial affairs of the university shows that as of March 31, 2022, academic staff accounted for annual wages of about E463 million (E462 752 770). 

This is obviously more than the annual subvention the university gets from government. 

While over the same period, the document shows, the wage bill for non-academic staff was perched at about E85 million (E85 228 375).

The document of May 2023 shows that the institution’s wage bill as of March 31, 2022, had increased by about E31 million up from about E527.5 million in the 2021 financial to E548million. 

In 2021, the institution got a subvention of E357.5 million, it increased the following financial year to about E409 and to E446 million in the current financial year.

It has been shown that costs cutting measures implemented in 2020 have been of minimal help; nothing to write home about.

“In the previous periods the university promised to apply robust strategies to contain costs and increase income but the strategies of the management have yielded results…” reads the document that portrays a hopeless picture at the university.

The subvention is about 40% of the annual request made to government, which is at about E1billion.

Attempts to fund from within have not yielded the desired results. Its agricultural projects at Luyengo are not generating enough. The same applies to its investment company, known as Chakaza Holdings. 

Chakaza Holdings is a company set up to carry on business as investment holding company and for marketing and commercialising the university’s intellectual capital through short courses, management research support, intellectual property management and technology transfer.

The company also contributes to the financial woes of the university. The document shows that by March 2022, the university had claimed about E10million in terms of administration expenses paid for it by the university. The expenses had increased by E2.6million from about E8million the previous year.

The central government, by failing to honour its obligation and pay student tuition fees on time, contributes hugely to the appalling financial position of the university. The university is owed millions of Emalangeni.

As of July 2022, was owed over E140 million in tuition fees. It can be revealed that the institution had only collected E33million in tuition and it is believed the collected amount came from private sponsored students. A large number of students at the university are sponsored by government. 

If eventually allowed to sink, the future of thousands of students in the three campuses; Kwaluseni, Luyengo and Mbabane would be blown sky-high.

In recent interview over national radio, Registrar of the institution, Dr Salebona Simelane minced no words over its shaky financial stability. This was after it had signed an agreement with workers to end an almost two months long strike over salaries.

In response to questions from The Nation, Dr Simelane admitted the plight of the university adding that the institution continues to engage “government with a view to getting relief in the form of increase in subvention.”

“It should be noted that in recent years, government responsibilities have increased.  The University would like to publicly acknowledge that notwithstanding a reduction in absolute monetary in the annual subvention to other state funded organisations, the University has received the same or a slight increase in the subvention,” said Dr Simelane.

He said on average the university receives 30 to 40% of what it requests in the form of a subvention.  It has been since the 2008/09 financial year. The university subvention is almost equal to that of the obscured Eswatini National Treasury.

On the subvention, Dr Simelane said; “While it is true that the allocated subvention is reduced in real terms but it either remains the same or increases in absolute monetary terms.  The annual subvention allocation barely meets the university annual wage bill,” he said.

As it has been shown, the subvention is millions of Emalangeni lower than the institution’s wage bill. It was lower in 2022 and with the agreed increase of salaries fir workers, the situation is bound to worsen.  

He conceded that as a result of the low subvention “operations undoubtedly suffer as these can only be funded through the university internal sources of revenue which average 28%.”

Dr Simelane said the university heeded a call by government to generate its own income and these include initiatives such as costs containment, the establishment of Chalaza to trade and make profits to ultimately pay dividends to the institution and a few others.

He added; “It should however, be recognised that given the size of the economy and other factors these initiatives may not immediately produce the desired results.”

Dr Simelane admits “UNESWA is technically insolvent.”

“This is wholly attributable to the inadequacy of the funding. The university has been open about its plight.

“The university’s largest liability was the Eswatini Revenue Services debt which was in excess of one billion Emalangeni and a number of consultative meetings and engagements with a view to resolving this problem have been successfully held.  A resolution has finally been found.”

It was independently established that the Ministry of Finance has agreed to write off the university’s debt to ERS of E1.3 billion together with that of other institutions, such as the Eswatini Medical Christian University based at Mahwalala, Mbabane.

About the hostels that are falling apart, Dr Simelane said the university is going around hat in hand looking for sponsors

“Efforts are underway to rehabilitate hostels. Admittedly, they are currently in a bad state. Realising that government funding might be difficult to come by any time soon for capital projects, we are, through the UNESWA Foundation, and other avenues approaching donors to help the University either in liquid cash or in kind to refurbish hostels and staff offices.

“Any organizations that are in a position to come forward and assist the university restore its infrastructure are welcome to do so,” he said.

The University of Eswatini was established by an Act of Parliament in 1982. It developed from the University Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland which was established in 1964.

In 1975, the University of Lesotho withdrew from the triumvirate and the University of Botswana and Swaziland parted ways in 1982.

There are questions as to whether government ever fully funded the UNESWA. Initially, government funding of UNESWA was boosted by funds from the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and the Anglo-American Corporation.

At the end of the apartheid era in South Africa in the early ‘90s, external funding declined gradually before it was totally cut off, leaving UNESWA to operate on a shoestring budget.

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