‘We’re facing a meltdown’

‘We’re facing a meltdown’

MASERU – THE decision to suspend academic activities at the National University of Lesotho (NUL) has come as a shock to the government, especially Education Minister Professor Ntoi Rapapa who says he was not consulted.
But Vice Chancellor Professor Nqosa Mahao says this has been a long time coming. Since Monday the government has been insisting that the university should reopen because it has enough money.

The Senate has however stuck to its guns, pointing out that the university is broke and will not reopen unless the government comes up with a comprehensive solution to its financial problems.  The result has been a stalemate that has left students in limbo. thepost spoke to Prof Mahao on Tuesday, a day after the university was closed. Below are excerpts from the interview:

What is the core issue here?

In the 2008/09 financial year the subvention from government was M132 million. But without any warning it was cut by M32 million to M100 million. And after that it has gone up by only M10 million in the past decade.
Then three weeks ago we were called by the Ministry of Education to tell us that even that M110 million we were supposed to get this year will be cut by 10 percent.

They said this cut was for all tertiary institutions. For NUL this means that it is now left with only M99 million. That takes us back to the 1990 level when the university had only 2 500 students.
Back then this was a small university that had few employees and was not spending much on technology because there were no computers and internet.

We also did not have postgraduate programmes and as many courses as we have now. It is clear that the university needs more money but no one seems to be listening.

What will happen if the government does not increase the grant?

The solution is not simple at all. It is tough but it is one that has to be implemented if the university is to remain open. I am talking about suspending new programmes, cutting the old ones and retrenching staff.
This is the sledgehammer plan my predecessor, Professor Sharon Siverts, had proposed. She wanted to cut the programmes and reduce the staff from about 500 to about 350. Unfortunately this is now what we are facing.

The Senate’s statement talks about meetings that failed to take off? Can you explain the efforts you have made to get audience with the government?

Last year we asked the Prime Minister to address NUL issues and indicate the government’s intentions with the university. The Prime Minister ordered that there be a meeting that includes the university, as well as ministries of Finance, Education and Development Planning.

That was in December last year but that meeting has not happened. I have been pleading with the Minister of Education for that meeting.
On February 9 I wrote to the minister (Prof Rapapa) a day after he was sworn in to ask about the meeting. There was no reply.
I wrote another letter on April 9 asking about the same meeting and, again, there was no reply. I just don’t understand what is the problem (with having) people meeting to discuss important issues.

What was the minister’s response to the Senate’s decision?

He called me and the chairman to say he was not informed about the decision. I kept asking if I can at least have a commitment that there will be a meeting to discuss this matter. But by the end of the meeting I don’t think I got that commitment.
The minister kept insisting the university should reopen while I was saying the university had not closed but had suspended some activities.

But the minister said NUL has enough money to continue operations.

He is talking about M24 million government released to the university. The truth is that money is a quarterly payment from the subvention. To understand the impact of that amount you have to first understand the university’s costs.
NUL’s monthly wage bill is between M18 million and M19 million. Add the other running costs like electricity, internet, petrol as well as other learning activities and you see that this amount does not cover much. There is nothing left on the M24 million for other operations.

Are you using an overdraft to pay salaries?

We often have to negotiate an overdraft because the money from the government does not come on time. You will be told that the amount is stuck somewhere. They will say it’s with the bank or its still with the treasury.
And by that time the clock will be ticking. By the 25th of every month the employees should have their money in their bank in order to meet their obligations. You then have to rush to the bank to get an overdraft that comes with interest.

When the government money eventually comes you will be short because you will have to pay the interest on the overdraft. My problem is that we have people who don’t want to discuss issues.
Experience has shown that issues are resolved through discussions. Last year we had an issue with the tuition and the government was quick to have a meeting to discuss the matter.
I am happy that issue was amicably resolved and we could move on. But on this matter nothing is moving.

Do you have money to pay salaries for this month?

We will be able to pay salaries until June but there will be a crunch in July. From July there will be a crisis. As we speak we have to decide how many students we will admit this year.
We should decide which programmes to shut down now because you cannot change once the students have been admitted into a programme. We will have a management meeting today to decide how the university will survive.

We have to decide which programmes to cut and how many students we take. I must also say that we already have a disaster. You might know that the quality of science students we are getting from schools is not that good.

For us to prepare these students for the science programmes we have a bridging course that starts now and ends in August. We cannot have that bridging course because we don’t have the money. I have told the minister about this.

How much does the university need from the government to survive?

The barest minimum we need in subvention is M166 million per year. That, I must say, is the minimum we need to keep functioning. The best case scenario is around M300 million.

Staff Reporter

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