South Africa

Op-Ed: Tough choices for South Africa’s research-intensive universities

By David Dickinson 2 August 2017

Student fees dominate current debates over university funding. But whatever the Fees Commission recommends, the wider crisis of South Africa’s public university funding is set to deepen. Indeed, the consequences of inadequate funding and increasing student numbers are already apparent. Our tertiary institutions, including elite, research-intensive universities, are buckling. Frantic efforts and brave faces do little other than temporarily conceal the unfolding crisis. By DAVID DICKINSON.

South Africa’s 26 public universities confront a range of interconnected challenges. The five research-intensive universities, the Centre for Higher Education Transformation’s so-called “Red Cluster” – Wits, UCT, Rhodes, Stellenbosch and Pretoria – are caught on the horns of a dilemma: to pursue the prestige of globally recognised research status or to provide high-quality education to ever increasing student numbers. With adequate funding, and adroit management, both would be possible. But there is insufficient funding to sustain both. You compromise one goal and you are no longer in the global research league, you compromise the other and you’re inadequately preparing the country’s next generation of leaders. University councils and management appear unwilling to face this uncomfortable truth.

The demands imposed by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DoHET) that universities increase student numbers and increase research outputs has seen Wits, and other universities, attempting the impossible. The result can be likened to bolting a Formula I racing car (globally recognised research) to the chassis of a school bus (massified education). The weight of the overcrowded bus is a drag on the car’s performance. The exacting demands of running a racing vehicle mean the needs of the bolted-on bus are neglected.

There is a stock response to this dilemma that I’ve heard repeated comfortably since I began my academic career at Wits in 1994: that research complements teaching. As a maxim it’s valid, but maxims don’t provide funding. You only need to look at Wits’ balance sheet to see that there are inadequate resources for both projects. And much the same goes for other universities.

At Wits, Vice Chancellor Adam Habib and Council have consistently reassured the university that the academic programme will be protected from the budgetary cuts necessitated by the ending of student fee increases. The truth, however, is that the teaching programme and student-focused services are being bled through stealth cuts.

One way to make savings on the sly is the casualisation of the lecturing staff. Increasingly, Wits is dependent on sessional lecturers and postgraduate tutors. Instead of creating new academic posts in line with increased student numbers, short-term teaching contracts – “sessionals” – are used to plug the gap. In the Sociology Department we currently have 16 full-time academics. There are some 1,500 undergraduate students taking sociology courses and we have an extensive postgraduate programme which requires students to be supervised for research reports and theses. And, of course, we research and publish. This year, we are employing 13 sessional lecturers (teaching one, sometimes two, courses) to cover our teaching programme. Sessionals can be excellent teachers, but they are inevitably less committed to the institution than those employed full-time. Their integration into the teaching programme is circumscribed. They don’t sit on committees that ensure teaching quality, they create administrative work, they aren’t available to cover for a sick colleague, or to provide specialised advice to post-graduate students. They do not supervise. And they certainly don’t fit into the comfortable nostrum that research supports teaching: research isn’t part of their job description.

In addition to lecturing, tutoring students in smaller groups is a central part of any academic programme. Ideally this would be done by full-time academics. But at Wits and elsewhere workloads make this impossible. To provide tutoring, sociology employs an additional eight sessionals and uses almost 30 student-tutors across our undergraduate programme. Many of them tutor in return for the merit bursaries that pay their fees. Managed carefully, postgraduate tutors can valuably support undergraduate teaching. But, however enthusiastic our tutors are, once tutorial groups surpass 12 or so students, tutorials become lectures – except that they are not being delivered by lecturers but by postgraduates just a few years ahead of the students. Honours students tutor first year classes of 25 students. When I complain that this is compromising the academic programme, the response is that I should be grateful for what we’ve got; tutor-student ratios are worse elsewhere in the university. The university is being hollowed out.

Casualisation of the teaching staff affects more than the quality of the academic programme. Employing young scholars to teach on a sessional basis can be an excellent way for them to gain experience. Except that the stealth cuts have created a contractual ceiling and sessional teaching has become a trap for young academics – perpetual precarious employment. A cohort of permanently insecure sessional lecturers is being constructed. And most of this new academic precariat are black. In real terms, when you count who is in the classroom and not only who is employed full-time, there is a widening gulf between secure, if stressed, senior white academics and insecure black sessionals. The seeds of another university crisis are being sown.

Beyond the core work of teaching, the basic fabric of the university is starting to rip and tear. A few examples: the dropping of student support programmes even as increased need is recognised, understaffed libraries with one of the country’s premier reference collections almost unattended, a student counselling service openly acknowledging that it cannot cope, and inadequate maintenance work on ageing buildings. You don’t need a degree to work out where things are headed.

There are sincere attempts at Wits to transform the institution, to promote the careers of black academics, and to decolonise the curriculum. But these initiatives are swimming against the tide of budgetary contraction. The cost-cutting is relentless. And so will be the consequences.

All of South Africa’s research-intensive universities will slip into decline if they individually follow over-ambitious strategies that their budgets cannot support. There need to be rational choices based on realistic goals. That would require co-ordination between universities and the DoHET to thrash out difficult decisions. Making that happen isn’t going to be easy, but the first step is honesty. We must cease to mask the impact of inadequate university budgets and recognise what is happening on the ground. DM

David Dickinson is Professor and Head of Sociology at Wits University. He is a past President of ASAWU, the academic staff union, and represented academics on Wits Council between 2014 and 2016.

Photo: South African police forces members patrol the Wits University campus during ongoing clashes with #feesmustfall students during the 4th week of protests against the cost of higher education in Johannesburg, South Africa, 11 October 2016. Photo: KIM LUDBROOK (EPA)

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