South Africa

‘Only hungry for education’: Bitter cost for students at Walter Sisulu University

By Rebecca Davis 3 September 2013

Walter Sisulu University’s nine-months-and-counting salary dispute, and six-week strike, culminated in the closure of the university last week. Now negotiations between staff and management over salary increases are ongoing, even as it emerged that the poorly-performing university spends more money on salaries than any other university in South Africa. While the wage tussle drags on, it is – as usual – the students who have most to lose. By REBECCA DAVIS.

There were cracks made on social media this week that some South Africans had never heard of Walter Sisulu University until the current labour dispute made the headlines. That’s not impossible: it’s a relatively young institution, it’s in financial trouble, and it doesn’t perform well. Nonetheless, for 27,000 students in the Eastern Cape, it represents their best shot at a tertiary education.

Walter Sisulu University (WSU) only came into existence in 2005, created from the merger of the Border and Eastern Cape Technikons with the University of Transkei. From the get-go it was beset with problems: a lack of infrastructure, too few quality lecturers, and reportedly more students than its government subsidy supported. By 2011 the university was declared bankrupt, which prompted Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande to appoint an administrator – Professor Lourens van Staden – to clear things up.

Van Staden seems to have done a good job. Within a year, student debt was reduced from R271 million to R40 million. By June 2013, things for WSU were looking peachier than for a long time – even though the institution was still technically bankrupt. “Financial stability had been achieved in the short-term,” Higher Education Director-General Gwebinkundla Qonde told journalists last week. “All creditors paid, staff salaries secured, backlogs cleared and a break-even budget tabled for 2013.” But then came the salary dispute that has brought the institution to a standstill.

One of the factors the administrator had to look at immediately upon assuming his position was the unsustainably bloated payroll of the university. Most other South African universities spend between 55% and 62% of their operational income on staff salaries. When Van Staden took over, WSU was shelling out 80% to pay its staff. Under van Staden’s stewardship, this has been reduced to a still exorbitant 75%. The university’s employees, Qonde said, are “amongst the highest paid university employees in the country and highest paid university employees in the province”.

This is despite the fact that, well, they don’t seem to be doing a great job. In fact, an audit of 2011 found that WSU had the lowest graduation rates of any university in the country.

This year, the university offered lecturers and admin staff a salary increase of 4,25%. That did not meet with the satisfaction of the staff, represented by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), who want an 8 to 10% increase. University management is adamant that they can’t afford more than 4,25%. Nehawu says that the Higher Education Department should cough up more: “They have known about the issues there for a long time and every time they tell the workers they must tighten their belts,” spokesperson Sizwe Palma told Business Day. “It is the workers who are being victimised.”

But it’s clear that the ultimate victims are the students. After Van Staden announced last Tuesday that students had to leave the premises until further notice, students staged demonstrations, allegedly throwing stones at motorists, disrupting schools and barricading roads. Sixteen students were arrested by police.

In a letter to the Daily Dispatch on 23 August, a final-year WSU administrative management student called Sive Joni expressed his frustration with the situation. “We are not all violent and do not all resort to strikes,” he wrote. “We are only hungry for education.” Joni said that he and his peers had set up a tutoring group to teach themselves, “getting ready for when they have finished fighting so we can be ready for whatever plan they have for us”.

Nosihle Rabukana, a 21-year-old from Margate who is studying for a Bachelor of Education at the university’s main Mthatha campus, told the Daily Maverick that she last received proper teaching before holidays in June. She and a number of other students have refused to leave the campus even after Van Staden’s decree last week. “We are afraid that if we leave we might never be able to come back,” she said simply.

She and the remaining students now spend part of their days attending SRC meetings for updates on the status of the staff negotiations. “Other than that we lie around all day or go to the sports ground for games,” Rabukana says.

“I am very worried about how this will affect my studies, because the semester might be forfeited, which means that I’d still be doing Level 2 next year since I have year-long modules,” she said. “If the university doesn’t open I’ll have to take this as a gap-year and try to get a job.” The possibility of transferring to another school is not an option, she doesn’t think, because most other universities don’t accept WSU credits, so she would have to start her degree again. “My parents won’t afford that,” Rabukana said. “Time is not on my side. I’m not getting any younger.”

For many WSU students, financial and logistical constraints mean that this might be their only bite at the cherry of higher education. Student leaders have previously expressed what seems to be a wider resentment: that their plight is not being taken seriously by politicians because their university is seen as inferior. “President Jacob Zuma personally went to the University of Zululand and intervened there,” SRC President Ngobe Lali complained to City Press a fortnight ago. “Just recently he intervened in a water crisis at a university of privileged people [Rhodes], but he has not given us the time of day because we are children of the poor.”

But the frustration of the students seems to be directed more towards university management than the striking staff. “I am angry towards the lecturers but at the same time I’m not because they are fighting for what they deserve and what is rightfully theirs, because the employer is offering what is below the inflation rate,” Rabukana said.

Sive Mdakane, a final-year civil engineering student, echoed Rabukana’s sentiments to the Daily Maverick. “I’m angry with the management of the school, not lecturers, because they should have seen this coming before it happened,” Mdakane said. “There is a child’s right to education at stake. Not these political scores.”

WSU spokesperson Angela Church told the Daily Maverick that negotiations between management and staff were ongoing on Monday, and by late afternoon the first session was still in progress. “We may have an indication of what has transpired later tomorrow,” she said. Church refused to be drawn on the notion that inflated salaries may have led the university towards its current financial woes. “The payroll cost at WSU consumes over 70% of the annual budget,” she confirmed. “This is an ongoing financial challenge which will have to be addressed to avoid compounding problems.”

Church said that the university hoped to be able to put into place provisions to address the teaching that students have missed over the past weeks. “If the strike ends soon we can still save the academic year by re-aligning the academic calendar to finish later in the year, and forfeiting the September vacation,” she said.

If Church’s scenario doesn’t transpire, Sive Mdakane is desperately anxious about what it could mean for him. “I’m worried about my career,” he said. “Last year I was doing my in-service training at [a consultancy firm]. They gave me 12 months to finish my subject and then come back to them. Since there is a strike now I don’t know whether they will wait for me.”

Mdakane isn’t holding out much hope. “Probably I will lose that working opportunity,” he said. “It hurts.” DM

Read more:

  • Walter Sisulu University: Highest paid staff, lowest performing students, in M&G

Photo: WSU by Sarah Mount

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