Varsity Crisis

Varsity Crisis

The University of eSwatini, once the pride of the country’s education system, has collapsed. Under funding and abuse of the few financial resources it has had have been the cause of the mess. Government has refused to fund the university adequately in the last ten years and the results are now showing. Once revered as the mecca of premier education institutions in the region, it has collapsed to the point where it is starting to look like a farce, writes NIMROD MABUZA.

Inadequate funding for many years. Added to that, the allegations of gross mismanagement of the little funds available has placed in a perilous position the national and largest tertiary institution in the kingdom, the University of eSwatini, which is now almost submerged in a massive financial crisis it may not be able to get out of.

It has been many years since the university received any decent funding from government, itself struggling to recover from almost economic collapse. At the tertiary institution, the situation is scary and the future looks bleak.

For the 2019/20 financial year, according to a leaked document, the university submitted to government a budget request of E889 million but received only E368 million, which was one third of the amount requested.

The university said the allocated amount had been slightly increased by E30 million from the previous year.

“Thus, the university will not be able to meet its obligations if business continues as usual,” reads the document.

The situation was even worse the previous year where the amount allocated was E30 million less and nowhere near meeting the university’s obligations.

In the 2020/21 financial year, the budget estimates show that government made a provision of about E388.6 million as subvention for the university.

Without doubt, it was far less than what had been requested. In fact, the national budget estimates show that in the past five years, budget provision from government for the university hardly exceed E400 million.

Underfunding of the university is one problem. The other relates to the release of the subvention.

The uneven monthly releases, the university has noted, were often far less than the university’s monthly operations or obligations.

In a meeting held on June 18, 2020, between the university team and workers’ representatives it was disclosed that the released funds were far too low to meet financial obligations of the tertiary institution.

The financial downward spiral at the university, it is confirmed in a leaked document, gained momentum during the 2008/9 financial meltdown.

Government, struggling to keep public servants paid their monthly salaries, cut down on its funding for the tertiary citing financial constraints and, importantly, called on the institutions to account and raise its own funding.

As the University of eSwatini struggles to stay afloat with an ever-shrinking subvention from government, which wants to shake off the university so it can become self-reliant, it has approached the tax master to write off a chunk of its debt, it can be revealed.

The university, in one of the leaked documents, acknowledges its shaky financial position and states that in 2018/19 year, it recorded a deficit of E159 million.

The deficit also hit-hard the government. Minister of Finance, Neal Rijkenberg in the February national budget revealed that government recorded a budget deficit of about E3 billion and other players in the field described the deficit as structural because it has become part and parcel of the budget.

The financial position of the university shows that it is technically insolvent. In the 2018/19 financial year, the institution owed the eSwatini Revenue Authority about E530.66 million. The amount includes interests and penalties. The figure should be higher now.

“The accumulated debt, mainly arising from the PAYE debt and other commitments has risen to E702 million. The PAYE debt alone has regrettably increased to E530 658 074 inclusive of interests and penalties,” it is pointed out in the document.

The university had to juggle around its finances to meet obligations and continue delivering on its mandate, although at not so high a level. A robbing Peter to pay Paul kind-of way.

Observed the institution: “In the absence of other more appealing options, the university found herself compelled not to remit the statutory Pay As You Earn and also to resort to bank’s short term bridging finance in order to honour staff salaries.”

Apart from salaries, funds designated for PAYE were used to finance other essential needs, such as utilities and teaching supplies.

Like its parent, the government, the university is weighed down by a huge wage bill and it admits in a document that “a greater portion of the university income goes to staff costs leaving little for operations and capital projects.”

For the kingdom’s tertiary institution, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. In 2009, The Nation Magazine exclusively published shocking details on how the University of Swaziland, as it then was, was being run down due to poor management.

Then Chairman of The University Council, Prince Phinda was accused by some staff members of turning the tertiary institutions into his own fiefdom, abusing resources – financial and otherwise, – for personal gain.

During the prince’s time, spanning over 20 years, governance collapsed to lowest levels and for staff members, a scramble ensued to gain his recognition.

Prince Phinda’s open door policy was not good for the institution. Proper channels of communication were blurred.

Back-biting among staff members, particularly those requiring renewal of contracts on the expiry of an existing one, was said to be the order of the day.

The bursar at the university, Mfan’zile Dlamini was not spared of criticism as he was accused of developing a strange relationship with the chairperson and spent a lot of time with his boss. He was, after all, the financial controller at the university.

King Mswati III relieved Prince Phinda from the chairmanship early last year and moved him to the chairmanship of the Land Management Board, a seat he never warmed because of ill-health. He died in May 2020.

While government has drastically slashed the budget for the national university, it has not displayed the same ruthlessness on the royal budget, institutions and parastatals whose benefit to the country remains questionable.

The current budget estimates show that the budget for King Mswati III and the royal household increase by E17 million – from E394 million to E411 million.

The obscured Swazi National Treasury (SNT) was allocated a healthy budget compared to the University of eSwatini.

Recurrent budget provision for the SNT was increased by about E8 million from E420 million in 2019/20 financial year to about E429 million in the current year. The functions of the SNT are not known by a majority of people in this country.

A combined recurrent and capital budget for the king and royal household is now at E1.1 billion yet government cannot afford E889 million for university, which has three campuses; Kwaluseni, Luyengo and Mbabane with an enrolment of about 7 000 students.

The Royal Swazi National Airways Corporation received at budget provision of E322.56 million, prompting parliament to raise concerns about the huge subvention. The country has no national airline.

Only two executive jets belonging to the king do not go anywhere near being a national airline. The corporation is responsible for those jets.

The University of eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) was established by an Act of Parliament in 1982. It developed from the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland which was established in 1964. Later Lesotho broke away.

Chancellor of the university, King Mswati III previously called on the university to look for way to ease reliance on government.

In the current report of the Auditor General, the university was listed as one of the public enterprises which did not file audited statements with the Public Enterprise Unit in terms of the Public Enterprises Monitoring and Control Act of 1989.

The report covering the period up to March 2019 stated that the failure to comply meant that a subvention of E338. 6 million allocated to the institution could not be accounted for.

Financial constraints at the university have impacted negatively on the institution’s employees who stated that in the 2019/20 financial year they were denied a cost of living adjustment.

Likewise, for three years, government employees were denied the same CoLA. For 2020/21, government set aside E227 million for CoLA. Then COVID-19 had not happened, which meant the diversion of resources to the pandemic.

It’s unlikely, public servants will get their CoLA anytime soon.

In an interview, acting Secretary General of the National Workers Union in Swaziland Higher Institutions (NAWUSHI), Lee Madzinane said underfunding of the university has greatly affected the institution’s workers.

“Our major concern as workers’ representatives is the welfare of our members. For three years our members have seen no increase in their salaries.

“We supplement our salaries with bank loans but that facility has been stopped because our loans are not serviced in cases where payment is deducted from source of funds.

“Our member’s tax deductions are not remitted to the relevant authorities. A few weeks ago, our members were denied medical aid because the university is unable to honour its obligations to medical aid providers. Our problems grow by the day,” said Madzinane.

He disclosed that they were making frantic attempts to meet the Minister of Education, Lady Howard-Mabuza.

“Maybe she will clear our minds as to what is happening.” Hwever, their efforts to have an audience with the minister are making no headway, he said.

The plight of workers at the tertiary institution is best spelt out in a letter to council dated February 20, 2020.

The workers union appealed to council after talks with management at the university had failed to make any headway.

Wrote Madzinane: “This matter has remained a thorn to our members for over 5 years now, and causing unbearable harm and needs to be resolved immediately. This financial year 2019/20 the employees have not received any notch increase and cost of living adjustment.

This situation compelled all UNESWA employees to rely on credit providers for survival thus non-remittance of stop orders is forcing the credit providers to stop the assistance given to UNESWA employees yet the university has deducted those payments from salaries.”

Madzinane said workers end up paying more for loans as the credit providers extend repayment period and charge interests on the arrears.

This letter is one of numerous written to management, including petitions. Meetings between the parties have been of no help. The university has no money.

It shut down its doors in March because of the COVID 19 pandemic. The shut down is believed in some quarters to have been a blessing in disguise as it gave the institution some time to put its house in order, a mammoth task in the absence of adequate funds.

At the time of going to press, the university had not responded to requests for comment despite several attempts to get them to do so.

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