Incontrovertibly, what used to be national pride and an epicentre of knowledge production in the country has unacceptably degenerated to appalling levels, thanks to poor governance, corruption and general neglect of education by the Swazi government. The University of Eswatini (UNESWA), formerly the University of Swaziland (UNISWA), is now a shadow of its former self and an industry expert told The Bridge that if UNESWA was a private company, she would advise that it be liquidated.

The once-powerful institution that produced renowned alumni who later became change-makers and impacted the region positively has now been subject to ridicule and scorn as a result of the manner in which the government and the university are running the institution. Surely, this cannot be the same university that produced former Swazi Prime Minister Mandvulo Dlamini, current Prime Minister Cleopas Dlamini, South African Ministers Lindiwe Sisulu and Naledi Pandor, CAF President and billionaire Patrice Motsepe, African activist and scholar Patricia McFadden, as well as environmental attorney Thuli Makama who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize back in 2010!

What has changed and why this state of affairs at UNESWA?

Quite recently, students at the university were advised that the examination would be replaced by Continuous Assessment (CA) and the next moment the University Senate announced that the examination will go ahead as initially planned. Class boycotts and student strikes have been a way of life for some time now and the regular closure of campuses is worrying when one considers time that should be spent on education.

As per the Memorandum released by the UNESWA Secretary of Senate, the Registrar, on 20 June 2022, the Senate decision to cancel examinations was one that Senate had taken under duress (raging students had surrounded the conference room during the meeting, threatening to burn the university) on the very same night that Senate was sitting to decide whether or not to yield to the students’ grievances. As one would imagine, such has the potential to cause harm to the academic reputation and integrity of the institution.

“Had Senate resolved to insist on exams that night, it was almost a guarantee that the students were going to burn down the university. Therefore, Senate strategically yielded so as to cool off the students, adjourned the meeting, and subsequently resumed the meeting under calmer conditions two days later, hence resolving to administer examinations under more controlled and secured conditions. Of course, any member of the public may be confused, including those academic staff members who do not sit at Senate. That is why it became necessary for the Registrar as the Spokesperson of the university to issue the press statement on examinations the following day,” said a source who is a member of the University Senate.

Another recent issue that has been a black spot on the integrity of the university is that of former University Council Chairperson Prince David. It is common cause that the King and Ingwenyama, acting in terms of Legal Section 14 of the University Act, 1983, appointed Chief Mkhumbi Dlamini as the new Chairperson of the University Council. This followed what was communicated as a ‘re-deployment’ of Prince David to the Border Restoration Committee (BRC) which was done in terms of Legal Notice No. 223 of 2022. The appointing authority announced this decision amidst media reports to the effect that the former Chairperson was receiving an illegal salary in violation of the Public Enterprise Unit (PEU) Act – that the former Chairperson had irregularly derived personal benefits from university staff and properties, that the former Chairperson was impugned in some irregular procurement processes, and that the former Chairperson had overstepped his authority by descending to the arena to micro-manage some senior officers of the university.

Furthermore, the university has not been a safe place for a long time now. The internal security has been quite weak, so much so that there have been many avoidable incidences of physical violence, theft, and a few sexual violence cases. The situation is exacerbated by, inter alia, the lack of adequate security infrastructure such as access-control at the main gate, hostels and office blocks, as well as unmaintained facilities. Opportunists have learned of this state of affairs and have taken advantage of it.

Not so long ago, a UNESWA lecturer was also accused of a sexual assault case involving a student. The case is ongoing within the national justice system; the accused staff member was suspended and during his suspension his contract came to an end and was never renewed. Being an expatriate, he had to leave the institution and the country.

Some of the issues with which the institution is faced emanate from its underfunding and that of education in general. UNESWA was established by an Act of Parliament in 1982 and it relies largely on government subvention for revenue. However, the country’s Auditor General (AG) recently reported that UNESWA receives only 40% of its budget request to run an institution with about 7000 students and a national mandate of making a significant contribution in the Kingdom’s knowledge economy, including through academic research and innovation!

Clearly, the taxpayers deserve some explanation around the value for their money from both the university and the government because it turns out that the prevailing challenges are both at the institutional and government levels. At an institutional level, inefficiencies and gross misconduct by those at the helm of administration have crippled the university, but also the government has failed at a strategic level to direct the university the same way it has failed the education of the country, more broadly. It has failed to put adequate resources and, over the past few years, the government has delayed the monthly payment of tuition fees. The state subvention from the national budget has also been significantly cut over the years. Consequently, this makes it hard for the university to operate smoothly.

Given the prevailing state of affairs, a significant exodus of active academics was inevitable, as witnessed during the 2008 recession up to 2012, the same period during which the government initiated its reduced scholarship awards and reduced allowances policy.

The government has consistently failed to timely honour its obligation of paying allowances for sponsored students, who are the majority and in full-time learning. When this happens, amid the raging financial woes faced by thousands of families across the country, the students are placed in the unenviable position of having to stay on campus or nearby without food or basic survival necessities, let alone learning materials.

It becomes unconducive and intolerable for them to go on with their studies as per the almanac, and when Students Representative Council (SRC) negotiations fail, the student body resorts to protest action which becomes so fierce that the university finds itself compelled to protect its community and properties through closure. According to the university, the closures are enforced by the circumstances on the ground where both the institutional security personnel and the national police force all fail to contain or manage the state of affairs. Closure under these circumstances invariably disturbs the almanac, but serves the purpose of containing the situation while negotiations with the government are ongoing, and attempts to implement online teaching and learning are done (although difficult).

The other major cause of student protests and closures over the Covid period has been the institution’s failure to properly implement online teaching and learning. This has largely been because of the non-provision of gadgets and data for both staff and students. Although training was provided from 2020 up today, staff have been expected to wing it by using their own personal gadgets and data, and so were the financially struggling students. Therefore, the reality was that the online delivery of modules was fragmented, inconsistent and mostly not quality-assured. The reality on the side of students was that without an allowance, a gadget and internet connectivity it became difficult to access the Moodle, Zoom or Google classroom sessions, online tests and assignments.

The result of all these factors has been academic exclusion. When the university attempted to mitigate the situation by bringing the ‘excluded’ group of students back on campus for face-to-face teaching and learning, the rest of the students cried foul and gathered on campus to initiate another protest action. These two factors have been the major causes of the series of back and forth opening and closures of the university.

However, in 2021 the landscape shifted. This was when two critical events unfolded during the heated period of online learning dissatisfaction and late allowance payments: The Association of Academic and Administrative Staff went on strike in 2021 demanding Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) which was overdue for some few years, and during the period of the COLA strike, the Thabani Nkomonye incident occurred, the consequences of which is common knowledge. In 2021 eSwatini also witnessed the wider national political unrest in which the students, as concerned members of society, were affected. The confluence of students’ grievances and the national political unrest definitely hit the university hard, mind you, this is a university that was never ready to migrate to online teaching and learning and was already struggling to cope post-Covid.

Up to today, the allowance issues are still unresolved, and it seems the government has set the university up against the students by failing to honour its obligations towards the students.

Said a source at UNESWA: “It has been glaring over the past 3 years that when the protests take place, the national police force fails or refuse to enter the campuses to restore law and order. They intentionally station themselves at the gates or within the immediate vicinity, but they never enter the campuses. This leaves the university vulnerable since its private security is weak and in either case the private security has neither the mandate nor capacity of crowd control. The university community is therefore left at the mercy of the raging students, hence the series of decisions by the University Senate to close the institution solely for protection of human lives and its property. The open-close back and forth has compromised our quality; it has destabilized the operations of the university; it has lengthened the almanac (there is a semester that lasted for over 10 months in 2021); it has resulted in a need to suspend some of the regulations of the university hence some students have in the past been assessed by CA only; it has also placed the university at odds with the government tuition payment timing, which is one other cause of the financial instability of the institution.”

UNESWA staff have not received the basic COLA since 2018. In 2021 a meagre 3% was given (after 3 years of no COLA), and that 3% was a compromise reached after the strike action had forced the institution into negotiations. The benchmarking done by the Association of Lecturers and Non-Academic Personnel (ALAP) in 2021 revealed that, in terms of salaries, UNESWA fell far behind its sister universities Botswana and Lesotho as well as other universities within the region. It is suspected that, among others, this was the cause of the 2008 – 2012 exodus of lecturers who left for other better-paying universities elsewhere.

There are numerous challenges facing the slightly over 300 lecturers at UNESWA. The Bridge has since confirmed that the university’s serious financial hardships have led to its failure to pay dues like bank deductions for loans of its staff members since staff only gets net pay figures and this has resulted in staff not being able to borrow and get bank loans, among other things. The lecturer-student ratio is another issue. While it is debatable, but it is known that some lecturers are overburdened in comparison to others. For example, you might find that an Academic Communication Skills (ACS) lecturer has 200 first-year students in one class, and a colleague in the same faculty of Humanities has 8 students learning French in first year.

The number of highly experienced and qualified lecturers like Doctorate or Post Doctorate holders is also subject to discussion in the UNESWA challenges. A Master’s degree is one of the standard minimum requirements that the university has upheld. In the very rare and few instances where the recruitment process fails to secure a properly qualified and experienced local person, the university may opt for an expatriate. In the event that no local or expatriate has the required Master’s degree, the recruiting department may, as a last resort, recommend the appointment of a suitably experienced ‘practitioner’ whose professional experiences render them capable of delivering equal or better quality to the students. In some cases, practitioners are preferred for certain specialized subjects/courses, even if they may not have a Master’s degree. However, a Faculty of Commerce lecturer who spoke to The Bridge on condition of anonymity mentioned that the pool of Masters and PhD holders in the country is gradually declining in certain specializations, yet in other specializations, there is a saturation of experienced and qualified persons.

The teaching and learning facilities at the institution are also despicable. While the University Council has in early June 2022 authorized the use of funds for purchasing gadgets for staff, other areas need improvement too. Classrooms are dilapidated; it seems the maintenance department does not exist. Projectors are a scarce commodity; in fact, The Bridge has it in authority that some faculties with over 50 lecturers are sharing one or two projectors! There is a pathetic shortage of furniture to an extent that students have to carry chairs from one room to another between classes; some have to sit on the lecture hall steps or stand. The Wi-Fi routers do not sufficiently cover office blocks, lecture halls and student residences. There is no basic lighting along corridors and it is quite scary to walk alone after dark. About toilets, an administration staff member at the Kwaluseni campus warned that it is better to hold it on until you get home!

It is apparent that the university has to resort to other means of making money, the same way other academic institutions in the world are doing. However, in a struggling economy, it is only fair to say the university can only do so much. To its credit, the university does have other sources of income, albeit bringing in very little money. It gets tuition from privately sponsored students (mostly Institute of Distance Education students); the UNESWA Foundation Endowment Fund, the Farming proceeds, Leased properties/houses; pro-rata collections from funded research projects; as well as money raised from executive and academic resource mobilizations initiatives.

Career development and capacity building for lecturers and other staff has also been severely affected. The university no longer supports its lecturers to go to research and academic conferences in other parts of the world as it used to do. There are no funds. However, some lecturers are not happy because of what they alleged to be favoritism, as some “chosen few” had the favour of the late erstwhile Chairman of Council or the Vice-Chancellor or the Bursar himself, and would get travel funds while others were being denied. In 2018, the university formally issued a statement that austerity measures would be implemented, and automatically all conference travel funding was stopped. The only way to travel now is if one secures for him/herself a fully funded conference, study, or exchange programme. Unless there is full sponsorship, it has been extremely difficult for lecturers within the institution to share their research with the rest of the world; it has been financially draining even to travel to the neighbouring countries. Without a doubt, this has stagnated their development as academics, yet in this profession, one has to stay on top of things and at the height of contemporary knowledge, if they are to deliver real quality education to the students.

In all these, the learning and residential experiences of students are negatively impacted. The on-and-off regarding examinations, the uncertainty as regards the almanac, and the socio-political and economic landscape of the country today are all sufficient to destabilize an individual’s mental health, let alone a student who ought to be learning in a conducive and controlled environment. There have been startling media reports on incidences of forced sexual work by students in an attempt to have basics like meals and other amenities. A source in the counselling department also talked about a rise in the number of mental health issues leading to depression among the student population. 

Generally, the state of the institution has led to poor performance as seen in the ranking of universities on the African continent. UNESWA was 138 in Africa (in 2021) and is 130 in Africa (in 2022). This is out of the top 200 universities in Africa. In world rankings, UNESWA is 5539. This is according to a credible site, UNIRANK. UNESWA does not feature in the QS top university rankings.

All these are happening at the backdrop of a country engulfed by numerous political and socio-economic challenges. The political situation is getting worse by the day as the government refuses to engage opposition leaders in an all-inclusive national dialogue that was announced late last year, and many had hopes that it would result in a democratic government in eSwatini.

The economic situation is not improving; there is a high unemployment rate, food prices are increasing and poverty is escalating. Late last year, The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) – reported that persistent drought, floods, and the impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods are intensifying the food security crisis in eSwatini. Between July–September 2021, 22% of the assessed population (262,000 people) were facing severe acute food insecurity, with 240,000 people in Crisis (IPC phase 3) and 22,000 in Emergency (IPC Phase 4) conditions. The food insecurity situation is expected to worsen between December 2021 and March 2022 as a result of COVID-19 containment measures, high prices of basic food items, and a high unemployment rate.

A Political Economy expert told The Bridge that to improve the situation at UNESWA the country has to democratize first. “Well, the first thing is to democratize the country; change the system of government. Once the country is democratic, the Chancellor of the university ought to exercise only a ceremonial role, without powers of appointment of any officer of the university. Part of the membership of the University Council ought to consist of persons elected on the basis of individual merit, or at least recruited through an interview process. The Chairperson of Council must be a person of proven capacity and experience in leading a higher learning institution (or any other type of institution) with set benchmarks,” she said.

She then advised that this obviously places the onus upon parliament to review or accordingly amend/repeal the University of Swaziland Act, 1983. “The Government Ministries (Education and Labour and Social Security) must review bad policies adopted during former Minister Lutfo’s era which saw the withdrawal of funding of ‘all students who qualify’. Scholarships for all have to be reinstated if the state truly values education and development of this country and its people,” she continued.

At an institutional level, some have advised that UNESWA ought to revise its internal statutes so as to commercialize the institution and make it self-sustaining. Commercializing also involves the development of new programmes demanded by industry today, and those programmes are delivered in such a manner that would render the student competent to assimilate into the field of work even before they graduate. It would seem that UNESWA also has to overhaul its financial management system by implementing what is called ‘management accounts’. Each and every unit should be financially independent, viable, and sustainable on its own, and proper books of account must be kept at the lower level, rather than the prevailing/current bureaucracy that is the Bursar’s office. As it is now, it is difficult to even question, for example, how the maintenance budget has been spent; whether the faculty of health has made a profit or loss; how much money has come in from agricultural products, and how much has been paid out to suppliers. “Only the Bursar knows, and that is a problem,” said a source.