Unpacked: 12 reasons why Unisa is teetering on the brink


Unpacked: 12 reasons why Unisa is teetering on the brink

More students fail at Unisa than any other university, and a report into the institution's failings reads like a horror script. Unisa has blocked a recommendation that it be placed under administration. ANNELIESE BURGESS asks whether Africa's biggest university can still be considered a viable academic institution.


UNISA is the biggest university on the continent. It has about 400,000 enrolled students — a third of the total at all public universities — and trains more than 50% of teachers. It also has the highest failure rate of any South African university. 

Using the word “crisis" seems wholly insufficient to describe what is going on there because the governance fractures, incompetence and factionalised vested interests which started emerging as far back as 2015 are so staggering and profound.

The word “failure" appears 121 times in the latest report by the independent assessor appointed by the Minister of Higher Education to get to the bottom of what is happening at Unisa and chart a way out of the mess.

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In the summary of his 316-page report, Professor Themba Mosia says he found “a cauldron of instability characterised by a culture of fear, intimidation and bullying, instances of maladministration, financial irregularities, human resources failures, a very fragile and troubled information and communications technologies (ICT) environment, poor student services, academic malpractices, leakages of confidential records, and questionable management and council decisions".

Mosia is a respected voice in higher education and has an unimpeachable reputation. He is interim vice-chancellor at the University of Pretoria, a former registrar at various universities, holds a PhD in policy studies and chaired the Council on Higher Education for a decade.

Let's take a deep dive into what his investigation found.

#1 Non-functional ICT system

For a mega-university dedicated to “open distance e-learning", an efficient, effective and stable IT system is a non-negotiable. Mosia says Unisa does not have anything remotely resembling that and warns that the risk of a system collapse is real: “[It] is a ticking time bomb, if not urgently attended to."

Unisa transitioned into online mode during Covid-19 and the report says this was done without being prepared or adequately preparing students. Many students cannot access learning material online because they don’t have the devices or the data Unisa now requires.

The insistence on online-only education seems to be one of the underlying reasons for poor throughput and success rates and high dropout numbers.

#2 Over-enrolment 

Unisa's student population has changed dramatically. Traditionally, it was a home for more experienced and working students. Now, more younger, mostly unemployed students who cannot gain access to contact universities go to Unisa. This has put pressure on the institution to provide different levels of student support.

Unisa has failed to make adequate provision for the dramatic change in the student body's profile. Mosia says enrolment targets were unrealistic and in some cases even irresponsible, considering the institution's lack of capacity. It admits more students than it can support. According to one source, some lecturers have 13,000 students.

Unisa has been fined R186 million since 2016 for over- and under-enrolments.

#3 Academic fraud

With the wonky, compromised, unfit-for-purpose ICT system and after doing away with invigilated venue-based exams, the integrity of assessments and examinations has come into question.

One staff member stated that “we cannot defend online exams from a security and confidentiality point of view”. Another told Mosia that many students working online sit in groups and copy from each other.

Mosia refers to an interview with a student who said: “It is true that the public has no confidence in Unisa. We are seen as people who go to an institution but would be incompetent in the work environment. This is about only one thing: the current online exam system.”

A related risk students and staff report is increased academic fraud, including the use of exam-takers and assignment-writers. Mosia says there are numerous reports that the so-called “invigilator app" does not work reliably and that it wrongfully flags students who were not cheating and, in other instances, doesn’t flag students who were. The so-called “proctoring tool" flagged more than 15,000 students (although only 200 were found guilty). Mosia says, “Unisa does not seem to have the required staff capacity to deal with the amount of work being generated."

#4 No support for students

Mosia says departments are understaffed, some academics experience burnout, and it is reported that many assignments are unmarked or lost. Some students write examinations without knowing their assignment marks. Lecturers are unavailable for their students as e-mails and telephones go unanswered (partly because people work from home). He says the student call centre is inaccessible and unhelpful.

#5 Academic standards eroded

Mosia investigated allegations of a drop in the standard of teaching due to different criteria for professorships introduced at Unisa in line with employment equity targets. This relates to a “special dispensation for professorships" granted to specific colleges to bring in more black academic staff. 

“I questioned senior academics on this matter during our interviews. One senior academic responded thus: ‘We moved from a requirement that applied to the whole university to each college having the opportunity to adapt the requirements to meet their purposes. In certain colleges, the requirements were then lowered to a level where they were able to appoint people to professor positions so that, from an employment equity perspective, it would look good, and I think that was part of the challenge — the criteria are not consistently applied."

Another academic said: “I noticed that every year there is more leniency in the requirements, and at this stage I think the person must have published three papers from their PhD with their supervisor, a doctorate, and in terms of teaching and learning they must have been teaching for three years, and some community engagement. I would say that the requirements for an independent, established researcher are not being met in all cases. I think that our professorships and our National Research Foundation (NRF) ratings do not match — we have increased the number of associate professors and professors but our NRF ratings have plateaued, and that tells you that something is not working.

“We have had situations where professors tell us that they need mentors, and one would say, hang on, you should be mentoring; you cannot be asking for a mentor. We have a situation where what would be sufficient for a senior lecturer is now acceptable for a professor — we don’t look at citations and impact factors, and we seem to have reduced requirements to the absolute minimum to benefit the most people.”

#6 Too easy to become a professor

Mosia says that “while the status of the beneficiaries of this ‘special dispensation for professorships' may be somewhat elevated in the eyes of others, it becomes a serious injustice to a student who is expecting quality education from a reputable university".

He quotes a senior staff member on the consequences of it being “so very easy to become a professor at Unisa". 

A staffer told him: “Unisa became strongly unionised about eight years ago, and there is the Black Forum pushing the agenda of blackness — I was a founder of it way back when it was needed for transformation, but it must now come to an end because there are blacks in all the positions in the university. We are now dealing with professors who cannot write, teach, research — they cannot do the work of a professor. There are professors coming to my office to ask for money to go to a conference; they (unions and the Black Forum) lowered the requirements for promotion and now we have loads of people who cannot function at the professorial level. You can also not require them to be orientated now because you will mess them up. The intervention that was intended to transform the institution has come back to bite us in the back, big time.”

Mosia says he received many complaints about deans of colleges who did not possess the “appropriate” qualifications. For instance, the acting dean of the law college does not have a law qualification but a PhD in criminology, specialising in security management. Likewise, the acting dean and deputy dean of the College of Accounting Sciences are not chartered accountants.

#7 No A-rated scientists

Mosia says it is “notable and concerning" that Unisa does not have any A-rated scientists, and although the colleges of human sciences and science, engineering and technology have 51 and 44 NRF-rated scholars respectively, they are primarily C-rated, with some B-rated.

NRF ratings are a tool for benchmarking the quality of researchers against the best in the world and are based on research and academic output.

The College of Law experienced the steepest decline in NRF-rated scholars — from 24 in 2018 to seven in 2022. The College of Accounting Sciences has only three C-rated scholars, and the College of Education has eight. The College of Graduate Studies had 20 NRF-rated academics in 2018. Now there is only one. 

Coupled with this trend of declining NRF-rated scholars, there was a simultaneous increase in the number of professors in some colleges.

“This may be indicative of awarding professorships without requiring clear academic outputs (as was argued above with the special dispensation for professorships)," says Mosia.

The Graduate School of Business Leadership has 22 academic staff, 24 professors in all categories and what appears to have been an abnormal surge of adjunct professors from zero in 2018 to four in 2021 and 11 in 2022. The College of Science, Engineering and Technology has seen full professors rise from 35 in 2020 to 45 in 2021 and 53 in 2022.

“I find that the use of a professorial title at Unisa has been diluted over time," Mosia says in the report.

“There is no doubt that Unisa has scholars of note in their respective fields of specialisation, who are thought leaders in our society, the continent and the world, and who have contributed immensely to knowledge production and innovation in our higher education system. The reality of Unisa is that these outstanding individuals are lumped together with those who were enabled by different criteria," the report states.

A senior person in the higher education environment with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the university (but who wanted to speak off the record because of the complicated political dynamics in the sector) says there are still many excellent academics at the university, and some colleges — such as the College of Science, Engineering and Technology — retain high academic standards because of the dedication of staff.

#8 Black Forum gone rogue

There are two “black forums" at Unisa that are often conflated. The original was made up of academics — including white scholars at the time — and aimed to promote transformation. The second, styled as a labour union and militant pressure group, came later. And it is this forum that is credited for being behind much of the mayhem at the university — and some of the corrupt activities.

A senior black academic — a former manager of the College of Law —told Mosia the following story, which illustrates how this new black forum became a menace.

“My first week at Unisa, I was visited by people who said that they lobbied for me, and they wanted to let me know that I was there by their intervention. I was furious because it was my 23rd year in higher education, and I thought I was here because of my credentials and not because a group lobbied for me.

“A few weeks later, I was told that there was a strategy I should approve, and I said no, this strategy does not speak to what we are supposed to do. That is where things fell apart for me… At one point, I was invited for a meeting with who I thought was my boss at the time, and I came to the senate chamber to be met by the previous chair of council and about 14 Black Forum members. The human resources director was there, among others. It was one of the things that stuck in my mind — it was one-and-a-half hours of being bullied, barely three months into my job. I was asking questions about how this was happening, trying to understand what was going on, and I was told that I refuted that a certain group had brought me here, which I refused to accept. That was the start of my hell, and of course, over time… I was removed overnight from overseeing the College of Law. I have all the records."

#9 Management broken

Mosia says all the university's critical structures are broken and ineffectual.

In defence of the current vice-chancellor, Puleng LenkaBula, he says: “She did not inherit a properly working institution." Still, he says that from her appointment in 2021 to the conclusion of his assessment in March 2023, there were “no significant improvements in the governance arrangements of the university".

A key area of conflict is between the vice-chancellor and the registrar, Steward Mothata — a critical relationship at any university because the office of the registrar is the fulcrum of academic integrity.

Mosia says there is a “clear matter of incompatibility" and the relationship has become “so dysfunctional that the delivery of essential services has been suffering". 

One example is the office of the dean of students (which reports to the registrar). As a result of the “immature handling of the conflict between the registrar and the vice-chancellor," this critical office has imploded.

In addition, he says, members of the management committee (ManCom), the university's highest management body, “lack the maturity required to effectively manage a complex university".

“They do not work in a healthy environment where intellectual debates form the basis of good decisions. As I interviewed them individually, I did not understand how some of them were entrusted with such a colossal responsibility to run an institution of this size and depth. I found some did not command the respect of senior academics and students. ManCom knowingly took irregular financial decisions that had and have far-reaching consequences for the university."

#10 Broken council

To top off this toxic brew, the most critical finding is that the university council is dysfunctional, too.

The council has tried to distance itself from its predecessor and has a new chairperson. Still, Mosia says many of the “new council" members also sat on the previous one (which was accused in 2016 of improper and irregular interference in university operations).

Mosia says it appears “certain rogue elements infiltrated council to pursue their own interests above those of the university".

One senior staffer puts it this way: “There was no planned succession [from the council of Mathews Phosa] and the quality of the council members who then came in you just cannot compare; it was chalk and cheese. What was worrying me was this issue of people who are hungry, who are consultants, and I suddenly had this experience which never happened before where people would come and say, ‘I’m running a consultancy business; I see you have connections; can’t you hook me up?' We had hustlers and people with no university experience."

#11 Financial mismanagement

Mosia says he does not sense that the council has an “understanding of the higher education enterprise, let alone an open distance e-learning institution… [It] is failing to fulfil its fiduciary responsibilities. The condonation of financial irregularities by [the] council and its failure to hold management accountable is glaring.

“I find that council is not only plagued with indecision but that council fails the taxpayers of South Africa by revising strategy after strategy without any real impact."

#12 Damaging (and costly) legal fightbacks

Mosia's report recommends that the council and management of Unisa be relieved of their duties in line with section 49F of the Higher Education Act. Minister Blade Nzimande tried to do this. He appointed Professor Ihron Rensburg, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, as the administrator who would take over the running of the university. Unisa challenged this in court and won. 

The higher education specialist I spoke to on background says running to court to protect the status quo has been a pattern at Unisa. Mosia references this tendency to use the courts in his report: “Non-compliance to policies and condonation of questionable decisions are pervasive… I found that it is fashionable at Unisa to seek legal opinions that come at a very high cost to Unisa."

It is expected that the minister will go back to court to challenge the appeal ruling. 

“When we say Unisa is too big to fail, we are not saying it can't fail. We are saying it may not be allowed to fail because it is an institution that makes it possible for a third of South Africa's university students to obtain an education," says the insider I spoke to.

“In my view, the act provides the minister with the right to place a dysfunctional university like this under administration. In fact, it would be irresponsible not to. He needs to put these very good reasons before the court and fight this latest decision that allows the dysfunction to continue."

Is it still a viable academic institution?

Jonathan Jansen is the former rector of the University of the Free State and a professor of education at Stellenbosch. His most recent book, Corrupted: A study of chronic dysfunction in South African universities, takes a broad look at the tertiary landscape and makes it depressingly clear that deep levels of corruption and dysfunction are not unique to Unisa.

But with regard to Unisa, he says: “I wouldn't advise any parent under any circumstances to send their child to Unisa, or any adult to register there, largely because it is highly unstable as a university and it is deeply corrupt as an institution. What professors want from a university is stability, and what parents want is predictability, and none of those features at Unisa at the moment."

He is not a fan of politicians, he says, but in this case the minister is correct. “You can't get out of this by rearranging the deckchairs on this enormous Titanic. You need a total reboot, with a new governance structure, a new council and people of high integrity, not quasi-politicians wanting to use Unisa for their own ends."


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