The ticking time bomb at NUL

The ticking time bomb at NUL

MASERU- TIK-tok-tik-tok-tik-tok-tik-tok. That is the sound of a time bomb at the National University of Lesotho (NUL).
As NUL Senate members trooped into a boardroom for a marathon meeting on Monday the sound of that ticking bomb rang louder in their minds. They were there to discuss how to stop the university from imploding.

Although there have been many such crunch meetings this one was probably the most crucial in years.
In the past they have averted crisis by trimming costs and postponing activities. That way they could keep the university open while trying to nudge the government to increase the subvention.

But on this chilly Monday the Senate was looking at figures they could not force the management to trim any further.
“It was clear that we had reached the bone and there was nothing else to cut. We had been shoved into a tight corner,” said a Senate member.

Any lingering hope that the government would increase the subvention had evaporated three weeks earlier when Minister of Education Professor Ntoi Rapapa told Professor Nqosa Mahao, the vice chancellor, that government was cutting the university’s subvention by 10 percent.
That meant this year NUL would receive M99 million instead of M110 million the government promised. Although the cut was across all government-funded tertiary institutions it was deepest for NUL which has been surviving on a shoestring for nearly a decade.

Out of money and options, the Senate’s decision was both drastic and unprecedented. It was severe because it suspended examinations and teaching activities. That means although the university remains open it is no longer discharging its core mandate of teaching.
It was exceptional because this is the first time the university has been shut down because it is broke.
The Senate said examinations and teaching activities will remain suspended until government had “addressed comprehensively the financial sustainability of NUL”.

It said it hopes that the government will “rectify the university’s “debilitating financial situation to enable a speedy return to normalcy”.
The government reacted with shock. In a brief statement Monday night Rapapa said the university has enough money to sustain operations. He said the university had just received M24 million in subvention from the government.

He also said the Senate had not consulted the Council and the government before making the decision.
What he didn’t say, though, was that this was a quarterly payment of a subvention that was already inadequate even before it was cut by 10 percent in April.

In real terms the M24 million is only enough to pay a month’s salaries and running costs. NUL’s monthly wage bill is about M19 million.
The minister made the statement hours after a tense meeting with Mahao. Mahao said in that meeting the “minister kept insisting that the university should reopen while I was saying the university had not closed but had suspended some activities”.

He said he tried to get the minister to give a commitment that they will restart negotiations on the subvention.
“But by the end of the meeting I don’t think I got that commitment,” Mahao said.
It seems it is that lack of commitment that has pushed the university to the brink.

Sometime last year the university wrote to Prime Minister Thomas Thabane, asking for more money and seeking to understand the government’s intentions with the university. Thabane’s response was to order an indaba for the Ministries of Finance, Development Planning, Education as well as the university management to thrash out the issues.

That meeting is yet to happen, forcing Mahao to start firing letters at the Minister of Education. Since last December he has written to the minister two times but with no response.

Meanwhile, the university has been inching closer to implosion.  On Tuesday the management had a long meeting in which they discussed the likely scenarios if the government does not budge on the subvention. Mahao is thinking of cancelling the new programmes, chopping the old ones and retrenching staff.

“That is the only way the university can remain open with the current level of funding. I see no other option unless the government gives us more money. Universities all over the world have to get some form of subvention.”

He says the M99 million the university will receive is what it got in the 1990s when it had 2 500 students.
“And 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.” Mahao said what worries him is the lack of political commitment to deal with the NUL crisis. This, he said, is despite that politicians are aware of the crisis that has hit the university for the past ten years.

The numbers paint a picture of a university that has been starved of money despite a surge in its intake and programmes. Back in 2008 the government cut the subvention from M132 million to M100 million. Since then it has only climbed by a measly M10 million to M110 million. That is an annual increase of a M1 million, way below the inflation rate. In the meantime the cost of running the university – from electricity to salaries and maintenance – have galloped to almost double the 2008 rate. If Mahao and his management team cut programmes and retrench staff they will be going back to the blueprint suggested by her predecessor Professor Sharon Siverts.

Siverts’ plan was to aggressively trim the programmes and chop jobs by nearly 40 percent. That plan was gaining currency within the then government was but hugely unpopular with students, staff and other stakeholders.
It was however abandoned when Siverts was abruptly pushed out. Mahao says such a drastic plan might be the last option the NUL has if it wants to remain open. This could be a long night for the NUL.

Staff Reporter

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