Office of the Ombudsman officially open
University Ombudsman, Prof Harry Nengwekhulu
If you are aggrieved by the inadequate service and administrative malpractice, exhausted by internal complaints procedures and frustrated by staff who refuse to help, there is help available. Unisaís Office of the Ombudsman is officially open again, ready to strive for quality service delivery and ethical practice. Newly appointed university Ombudsman, Prof Harry Nengwekhulu talks about the functions of his office, fairness, confidentiality of complainants and the importance of ethics.
What is the function of the Office of the Unisa Ombudsman?
The office deals with administrative and managerial fairness complaints from students, staff and anybody outside who has been affected by the actions and decisions of Unisa.
Who can report to the Ombudsman and what is the process?
Students, staff members, both academic and non-academic, and members of the public can lodge complaints to the Ombudsman.
What matters cannot be referred to the Ombudsman?
Labour and employment related matters, the conduct or decisions of the university council and its committees, the university senate and its committees or the institutional forum and its committees, a matter of academic judgement and a complaint which is patently or vexatious. But, otherwise, the Ombudsman will handle academic issues if they deal with unfair marking, the lack of marking of scripts or similar.
What experience do you add to the Office of the Ombudsman?
I have spent ten years as a Director General of Education in Limpopo and in the Eastern Cape and have been an academic in terms of teaching. Iíve also been a member of council at Unisa and in 2008, I was asked by the Unisa council to start up the centre for In-Service Education and Training (INSET), so through this I also have managerial and administrative experience.
What are your views on enhancing Unisaís service delivery and how would you go about fostering a culture of efficient and effective administration?
I think this is what is fundamental within Unisa. When we deal with complaints from members of the public, we are dealing with the quality or lack of service delivery. Most of the complaints that reach the Office of the Ombudsman deal with the poor quality of service delivery either in terms of students not receiving their assignments on time, their complaints not being responded to or simply staff not answering phones. The role of the Ombudsman is to try and enhance the quality of service delivery within Unisa so that people do not find it necessary to resort to external bodies, such as the Public Protector or the media, to complain to. There have even been instances where complaints have been taken to lawyers. So the Ombudsman is here to deal with issues like these. Of course, the Ombudsman does not prevent people from taking their complaints to any other body other than those within Unisa.
The Office of the Ombudsman prescribes to the universityís 2015 Strategic Plan Ė An Agenda for Transformation. Please elaborate?
In terms of highlighting weaknesses within the system, Iím currently dealing with cases very fundamental to the university. A university is a university because it has students and lecturers. Without students, there are no Professors, without Professors there are no students. All other administrative staff are merely supporting these roles. So where you find the interests of students not being handled properly, it means that the university is failing to meet the objective quality curriculum delivery for students who ultimately qualify and move into society as professionals. So it is important that the Ombudsman makes inputs in terms of office experience in dealing with complainants affected by service delivery at Unisa to its clients.
Are all complaints treated as confidential?
Yes the fundamental principle is that all matter must be handled confidentially. When we receive a complaint we refer it to a department or section where the complaint arises from. We ask them to make comments and then we assess these comments before launching an investigation. In some instances, I will allow those involved, who are affected by the complaint, to look at the report. Obviously I will always tell them that whilst Iím happy with the response provided, the type of complaint launched by the Ombudsman is so fundamental that it affects the principles and policies of the university and as a consequence, the report will be sent to the Vice-Chancellor so that matters of that nature do not arise again.
Unisa is committed to service of a consistent high quality by all its employees, however, lapses do occur. What are your thoughts on unethical actions and behaviour?
People can act unethically in a number of ways, either by not responding to queries by colleagues or taking decisions contrary to the basic policies of Unisa. There are also instances where we find Unisa staff engaging in fights with complainants, something which is not acceptable. In other instances, people have taken decisions where they later on claim they did not know the policies in that regard. Our advice is that when you donít know, donít do. You must ask to be provided with information.
The Office of the Ombudsman is very fundamental to the delivery of quality services by Unisa to the clients, being either students or members of the public. This office must always highlight the weaknesses, either in terms of the institutional structure of Unisa or policy objectives. Where necessary, the university may have to adjust some aspects. There are instances where postgraduate students are not satisfactorily monitored sometimes and there is no system that actually compels them to write periodic reports to the Dean for example, indicating their progress or lack thereof, so that the university can make proper decisions. So there are a number of areas in which the Office of the Ombudsman can be of much help to the university. But of course, this is not an office of inquisition. We donít go out to seek those who are not abiding the policies of the institution in order for them to be punished. The idea is to improve the quality of service for the university and all parties involved.
A complaint must be made in writing to the Ombudsman. Click here for the referral form.
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