Cry, beloved alma mater
Date Released: Mon, 2 September 2013 09:59 +0200
THE mergers and incorporations of higher education institutions was fundamentally projected to herald transformation so these institutions could better serve society.
For black institutions, an expectation was created that through mergers they would be enabled – through massive resource injections – to better deliver on their mandates and missions.
This was not to be! The physical outlook and enabling support for students at historically (but still) disadvantaged institutions (HDI’s) like the University of Fort Hare, Walter Sisulu University and Limpopo has heralded cosmetic changes but not meaningful change.
It is now more than eight years after the earthquake of mergers in higher education, and the only ones that appear to be successful (at least on the surface) are those between historically white institutions (HWIs) and those between historically white and black institutions.
So what was the rationale for mergers?
In my understanding they were part of the broader agenda to herald equity and redress and to enhance the quality of output from these institutions. The ultimate purpose was to ensure the emergence of transformed institutions that would be the pride of our people as true centres and champions of development through their production of graduates who understood and were prepared to tackle challenges of development in society.
In practice, it seems the rationale for the mergers was merely cost reduction. It was never about strengthening and enhancing the role of HDIs in particular so they could fairly compete with the HWIs which were heavily endowed by the erstwhile apartheid regime and its apparatus.
Sadly HWI’s continue to be heavily funded by the present administration through its continued use of funding policies that entrench the status quo.
The decision to merge universities and technikons reminds me of the one to close down colleges. Today we weep for lack of teachers, particularly in mathematics, science and technology.
Even more spurious was the idea of merging technikons and universities to produce what are now called comprehensive universities – a model never properly conceptualised up until now.
A merger of diverse academic cultures was to add further complexity to an already complex process of merging institutions with diverse identities and cultures.
One of the weaknesses of this model is its hopelessness to prevent academic drift in comprehensive institutions.
The merger of the erstwhile University of the Transkei, Eastern Cape Technikon and Border Technikon is an emerging case study of one of the mergers whose weak foundations were going to impede its success.
The merger was characterised by historic, structural and systemic weaknesses from its inauguration. It was:
One of only two mergers of HDIs in the country.
A merger of financially weak institutions characterised by gross under-funding from the state;
A merger of institutions at the lower rungs of both research and graduate outputs;
A merger of institutions located in a predominantly poor region (the 2011 census confirms this) with the overwhelming majority of students from poor or working class backgrounds and thus unable to afford fees; and
A merger of institutions characterised by volatility and general flux, especially Unitra.
So, really what was really the rationale for this merger? A deliberate strategy to destroy these institutions together? Maybe the real rationale was to throw a lifeline to Unitra which faced myriad crises in the preceding years. Part of the crisis was caused by under-funding.
In South Africa no one-size-fits-all model of funding is going to work, either for varsities, colleges, municipalities or provinces for that matter. The current funding models are deepening the status quo. We wonder who is benefiting from this as the overwhelming majority of South Africans are not.
Whilst studies were done before the mergers, the reasons why certain mergers did not continue as proposed are well documented, for example the merger of Rhodes and UFH.
Mergers in the final analysis were a product of irrational political decisions – and the merger of the three institutions to create WSU was a merger of poverty!
Did the three have a choice in accepting the merger?
Because they had neither the financial independence nor sufficient political capital to contest it, they were forced to accept it despite its discernible irrationality.
The fault lines inherent in the new institution were not addressed prior to the merger, nor were there commitments from government to come to the party to address the residual risks. As a consequence very little was new in the “new” institution.
The newly merged WSU was launched in July 2005, a year after all other mergers. This was followed by a series of administrative processes to ensure smooth transition.
Signs of trouble showed up less than six months later in a cycle of strikes by students and employees, a rapid turnover of staff including lecturers, and in the high level of suspicion between various internal role-players.
The promised redress through funding never came and the conflict between staff, students and the authorities deepened as the scramble for resources intensified and the weak financial base of the institution began imploding – as was to be expected.
The destructive and universal culture of self-service and self-centredness aggravated by elements of historic nostalgia worsened matters and injured the institution immeasurably.
Those of us who are alumni are the primary victims of the massive ruin of the institution’s reputation.
Flowing from the few challenges painted above, the question stands, was this merger by choice or by force?
Almost two years ago, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande sent an administrator to drive a “turnaround” effort. The question is: how do you turn around something with faultlines in its foundations?
This is a vexing question that the administrator and university need to confront with fortitude and bravery if they are to succeed.
But the solutions to the challenges do not lie in the institution alone. What is also necessary is an overhaul of the policy framework governing the funding of higher education institutions (HEIs). Without addressing this, any “turnaround strategy” will have short term outcomes.
Having been part of the new institution as a member of council for a short period, I would argue that WSU has a compelling vision, mission and values. What is needed to put WSU onto a new trajectory is the following:
Deliberate massive resourcing so the institution can provide a quality learning experience for its students and a quality working experience for its staff. The quality of the graduates of any institution is as good as the quality of its staff and its resources;
The re-establishment of governance in the form of the council so the university can become a corporate citizen again. If media reports are true about lawlessness and the suspension of procurement policies by the administrator’s team, this cannot wait any longer;
A formidable team to put the university on a new path. It must not only be technically razor-sharp, but have the correct orientation to the values and heritage of the province and have an unwavering commitment to deepening and sustaining the province as a home of legends and an exporter of human capital. The current team appears to have neither a clue, nor the appetite, to learn and appreciate the ethos and espoused ideals of the people of the province.
Theirs is to just uncritically implement decrees from Pretoria regardless of prevailing conditions on the ground;
Build a partnership in the province led by our government to influence and champion the building (not a turnaround – how do you turn around something set up to fail?) of WSU and the support of Fort Hare from a resource perspective. If the two institutions succeed and become sustainable, the province is also likely to succeed.
The notion held by some that the province has a minimal role to play in influencing the direction of higher education institutions located in it because of their accountability to the national government, is misguided and incorrect. Yes, the HEIs are national assets, but they must be relevant and responsive to their locational and regional contexts;
Activate the alumni to take a keen interest in university affairs. As holders of certificates, we are obligated to ensure the university is put on the proper path to sustainability. We owe this to present and future generations of students; and
Finally, there is a need to ensure a new development trajectory anchored in the current vision and mission. It must not be anchored in financial viability alone. Financial viability should be an upshot of strategic viability. Universities are not corporate entities, but institutions for public good. It is the responsibility of government to mount funding policies that ensure they are sustainable and have the requisite capacity to fulfil their historic mandates.
In conclusion, the basic tasks of the university revolve around knowledge – its generation, transfer and consumption, and also community engagement. WSU, like all other institutions, must be given the necessary capacity and resources to fulfil these basic tasks.
No department, minister or administrator will alone resolve the historic, structural and systemic challenges. The present narrow, self-serving, self-centred and inorganic approach to the WSU crisis will produce unsustainable results and be short-lived.
It is a pity that in the current social and political milieu, everyone is willing to accept what is going wrong. How I wish everyone, including civil society from this region, would choose to be relevant and do something.
If we fail to act in accord, a university named after that gallant icon of our struggle, the late Dr Walter Sisulu, will not find expression of his ideals.
Picture: MARK ANDREWS RALLYING CALL: WSU Monday students in a protest march from Southernwood to the Buffalo Street campus on their mandates and missions.
Siyabonga Nkonki is an alumnus of WSU
Article Source: Daily Dispatch