The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) will have spent R157m from January last year to the end of this year to investigate allegations that places at its medical school were being sold, reports the Sunday Tribune . Twenty-four staff members were suspended on full pay in August last year. At that time, 260 computers were also taken. In September 16 more staff members were suspended. However, the university is yet to begin internal disciplinary processes. The Hawks are investigating and have arrested three people: Hiteshkumar Bhatt, his wife Varsha and Preshni Hiraman. However, a few weeks ago, charges were provisionally withdrawn because the State was not ready to prosecute, 18 months after the arrests. No one else was charged.
According to a report tabled by the university’s financial committee, the university is paying millions to safeguard two staff members leading the internal investigation. Last year, about R10m was spent on security and the protection of those involved in the investigation, including their accommodation. This year it will increase to almost R30m. One individual gets 24-hour protection and the other 12 hours.
UKZN spokesperson Normah Zondo, said in the report “Our purpose for this expenditure remains utterly fundamental: to secure UKZN’S reputation and standing. We have set in place programmes to strengthen the university systems that are key to its core business for the purpose of eliminating our vulnerability to fraud and corruption. These programmes will run concurrently with the phasing out of the investigative and disciplinary activities under way.” She said costs were contained and were being closely monitored.
Regarding to the disciplinary cases against staff, Zondo said in the report they would start before the end of the calendar year. “We trust you will appreciate that the details of the investigations in question, disciplinary actions and costs associated with them are confidential for legal reasons, as well as those concerning institutional integrity,” she said.
Minister of Higher Education and Training Naledi Pandor is aware of the investigation and the “high costs” involved. Her spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele, said matters relating to the integrity of academic qualifications were extremely important and it was critical that the university could effectively address any fraud relating to its academic qualifications. He is quoted in the report as saying Pandor recently met the university’s chair of council and the acting vice-chancellor for a briefing on the university’s plans for concluding the investigations and handing the matters over to the appropriate authorities. He said the minister and the department supported the university’s plan to conclude these matters urgently.
However, the report says, there is growing unhappiness with how the investigation is handled. A former high-ranking university employee, who asked not to be identified, said the amount spent on the fruitless investigation was ridiculous. “This is terrible for an institution which, in 2016, had a R1.2bn deficit. The minister of higher education should place it under administration. At this rate the university may have to apply for National Student Financial Aid Scheme funding to pay staff,” said the ex-employee. “The investigators are looking for an imaginary black cat in the dark. Where are they with this investigation.”
An employee who was aware of the millions spent on the investigation felt the money could have been better spent to fund and accommodate poor students. Another said it made more sense to outsource an investigation rather than pay tens of millions on security.
Central Student Representative Council (SRC) President Sanele Hlongwa defended the university: “A budget of R98m was set aside, so the amount is not alarming.” However, the EFF’S SRC leader, Admire Zulu said, “corrupted people are being protected at the expense of students whose money is spent on an investigation that has been dragging on”.Sunday Tribune report (subscription needed)