Professor Enrico Uliana well remembers the unusual way in which former Vice-Chancellor Dr Mamphela Ramphele put the proposition to him to join the administration in 2000.
"She used an interesting phrase," he recalled. "She said: 'The cow is in the hole and I need you to pull the cow out of the hole.'"
Her use of an African proverb alluded to the need to call in the strongest person in the proverbial village to get the job done. In this instance she felt Uliana, a member of the University community on the academic staff, was the man for the job.
Ramphele's concern was that while UCT was apparently financially sound, she lacked confidence in this assertion. In particular, she was worried about the evident lack of strategic financial planning.
The real situation at the time was that UCT's deficit was around R80-million, and growing at a rate of 15% a year.
Also, the University's biggest funder, the state, was beginning to lag behind. While other sources of income were growing by 12%, state funding was growing by only about 8%, the single slowest growth rate between 1998 to 2002.
Added to the picture was the increasing cost of social and technological change, putting the University's expenses at a growth rate of around 16% a year.
This widening gap was potentially very serious indeed. Had the situation been allowed to continue, UCT would have had a cumulative deficit of around R300-million over the last three years.
Happily this is not the case.
The figures supplied in the annual financial statements for the year ended December 2002 speak for themselves. From a deficit of R78-million in 2000, to an operating surplus of R12-million in 2002, the turn-around has been much faster than anticipated.
Uliana argues that unless the University had re-evaluated its accounting systems, as well as the budgeting methods and processes and embraced the ethos of financial discipline at the time, it would not have been able to make these essential major investments.
This has now made it possible for UCT to engage in some strategic allocations to areas that can no longer be neglected if the University is to maintain its role as a leading higher education institution. Significant additional sums have been made available for research.
Among the most pressing needs are a substantive upgrade over three years to re-establish core computer infrastructure, and a new Student Information System. While this carries a high risk, it will be done from a position of strength rather than weakness.
"What we have done is create capacity," he said.
In the meantime, the finance department itself has been setting the example by saving millions of rand through efficiencies in a number of ways.
Examples include active money mangement, sharper negotiation on interest rates and more refined cash flow planning, A small adjustment can add a few million rands a year, given the amount of money being banked.
Another major success story is in the early recovery of fee debt.
According to the Head of Fees and Student Debt, Pat Goodwin, this has come about due to process improvements and a more proactive approach.
Firstly, by applying UCT policies more tightly, there is now greater awareness campus wide of the consequences, both for the University and the student, of allowing students with unpaid fees to reregister.
The system now blocks any student from registration if there are outstanding fees. It also automatically blocks the application of a prior UCT student who has outstanding fees at the admissions stage.
According to Goodwin, prior to 2002, outstanding student fees were only really actively chased at the end of the academic year, but the new process has brought the follow-up of current debt forward by six months.
In addition, by changing the registration process in 2002, fee accounts are now sent out a month earlier. Liaison with external bursars has also facilitated the earlier payment of bursaries.
Uliana said that through these departmental efficiencies, they have saved the University between R10- and R20-million, which although a minute part of the R1.25-billion budget, is nevertheless significant in relation to the University's bottom line and available discretionary spend.
With regard to the bigger picture, Uliana has played a key role in setting up management control measures, which have brought into the equation elements that were previously unaccounted for.
A new Medium Term Budget Framework was introduced that includes "return on asset" measures, which put a value on people and also on space. The new model adds the generation of income into the equation as well, and a system for targeting the bottom line of faculties and PASS departments.
The new model raised awareness that there needed to be closer positive management of the "real assets", namely the staff.
While this may have created some pressure, Uliana maintains that the finance department has achieved credibility, along with the message that they were not simply engaging in a bureaucratic exercise.
Uliana feels strongly about the behaviour-influencing capabilities of accounting systems, "what you measure is what you get".
Within the first month in office he took the bold (some said insane) step to move UCT away from fund accounting to accrual accounting. Fund accounting is used in most not-for-profit organizations, but according to Uliana will almost inevitably lead to inefficency.
"There has been a shift in mindset at this University, completely," he asserted.
Some of these measures pioneered at UCT have been adopted by the national Department of Education and become statute for financial reporting. Financial managers of higher education institutions in South Africa are frequent visitors to UCT to explore some of the ideas. In addition, Uliana has incorporated some of the developments into research papers.
What of the future?
"At the university level we have to maintain financial discipline to enable strategic spending. Within the finance department, while we are proud of what we have achieved, there remain a few niggling problems in some of our processes. Fixing these is a high priority.
"Then we embark on continuous improvement. Eliminating unnecessary processes releases staff to focus on more productive tasks. For example, we expect to generate several million rands in additional VAT recovery through more efficiently using our skilled staff," he said.