The management of Eastern Cape’s Walter Sisulu University (WSU) laid the blame for the unaccredited qualifications that rendered its certificates invalid on operational problems and staff resignations.
The university’s officials came under fire from MPs when they appeared before Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Higher Education on Wednesday.
At least five qualifications – Bachelor of Science Honours in Zoology, Advanced Diploma in Journalism, Master’s degree in Medicine, Advanced Diploma in Internal Auditing and postgraduate diploma in Chemical Pathology – were found to be null and void.
The Council for Higher Education (CHE) has since embarked on a review process of the courses and informed MPs that only students who registered for these courses on or before 2019 are affected.
According to WSU council chairperson and convocation president, advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, graduations for the affected qualifications that were supposed to take place this month have been postponed to next month.
The graduations are on hold to get clarification from the Department of Higher Education and Training and the CHE, which, through the Higher Education Qualifications Framework (HEQF), ensures a single qualifications framework across public and private institutions in the country and a national co-ordinated higher education system.
WSU Vice-Chancellor Rushiella Songca told members of the committee that merger problems, duplication of courses, campuses operating in silos, staffing problems and the fact that the institution was once placed under administration has worsened the situation.
“WSU had nine deputy vice-chancellors and eight senior managers, all of them in acting posts. During this period of concurrent problems, accreditation and record keeping matters were compromised and incoherent.”
She said management became aware of these problems and started to work to fix them in 2021.
“The CHE requested documentation which was provided on 22 April 2022. CHE then announced an audit of all WSU qualifications and we submitted a dossier on 6 May 2022, we await progress of this process,” Songca said.
A list of all affected students has since been compiled and letters completed to inform them of interventions, status and processes underway.
Appearing on behalf of the council, Ngcukaitobi credited Songca for raising the alarm on qualifications after she took over as vice-chancellor in January 2021.
“One of reports she gave to council was that we should look into our qualifications, and she seemed to have gone ahead and did the clean up in recognising what needs to be done, what is accredited and what is not. Those efforts of cleaning up continued through February and March 2022 and are taking shape.”
He said, following the media exposé, council met several times with management, requesting that the accreditation woes be urgently corrected.
“Our view as council is that any qualification with a question mark is a major problem for us at WSU because we are a black university already operating with a stereotype that our qualifications are not good enough.
“So a question marks exacerbates the stereotype, and make parents not to send their children to WSU. So we have to stamp it out. We told them to get qualifications approved by CHE and DHE, and if it means having to make applications on condonation because processes were not done on time, so be it.”
The department’s acting director-general Marcia Socikwa said the review processes to ensure quality assurance for the five qualifications was underway.
“This is a regulatory process that has to unfold and to enlighten the students and the public. It’s important to allow the CHE process to continue… we met with the university and other stakeholders and CHE agreed to assess qualifications.
“Once they submit the findings, we will look into a clearance process on our side and advise the university accordingly. We want to assist the students as they are uppermost in our minds.”
MPs were not convinced that enough had been done to resolve the certification problems at WSU.
ANC MP Tebogo Letsie remarked that it was not the first time that journalists wrote about qualification concerns at WSU.
He raised concerns about the possible withdrawal of funding by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) over invalid courses.
“In 2018, the Daily Dispatch ran an article detailing how nearly 800 Mthatha WSU campus students will have to register for their BSc degree in Prosthetics again at a Durban institution if they wanted to graduate in that qualification.
“At the time, WSU had more than 700 students enrolled, so it’s not first time this happens… in fact, in the same article it was stated that WSU failed to get its degrees accredited by the CHE since its inception.
“Has there been consequence management? NSFAS reported to us about the impact of these problems… WSU needs to verify if this has affected NSFAS-funded students.”
Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) MP Naledi Chirwa called on those who failed to do their work and submit to the CHE for accreditation in time to be sanctioned.
“Who was responsible? Who was involved and what’s the process onwards? You cannot have this crisis and no one taking responsibility… it’s just a meeting after another and nothing holding people responsible to make sure this doesn’t happen again. More importantly, look into how it all affects students.”
The institution’s vision 2030 strategy, said Songca, detailed the status of WSU and what needed to be done to propel it forward.
“The plan speaks to the need for WSU to operate as a unitary institution and ensure that similar programmes are found to avoid duplication of courses across campuses.”
Action taken so far against staffers saw the previous registrar leave WSU, including one of the senior managers in the institution, said Songca.
Committee chairperson Nompendulo Mkhatshwa said she was concerned that the mental health of WSU students could be severely impacted.
“This is concerning and depressing. We note the efforts by the vice-chancellor to clean this up… we support them, but we can no longer be apologetic. We need to be resolute about what needs to be done to improve the education sector… there’s this poison that won’t leave this sector – we see it at institutions such as Vaal University of Technology and at NSFAS.
“We also note the failure by management to mitigate these problems, consequence management must be implemented against those who neglected their duties.”
WSU is named after anti-apartheid stalwart Walter Sisulu and was formed after the merger of Border Technikon, Eastern Cape Technikon and the University of Transkei.
The institution has four campuses – Mthatha, Butterworth, Komani and Buffalo City.