Reputation matters more than students and workers for the University Currently Known as Rhodes; so much, in fact, that the university will blame its poor students for the plight of its poor workers.
Earlier this month, National Education, Health and Allied Workers union members at the University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR) engaged in an unprotected strike, after negotiations failed to win them a living wage. In its 10 May “Update on Wage Negotiations”, UCKAR protested that, “It would make no sense if the university had money and refused to pay its workers. This is not the case of being unwilling to pay more. There is simply not enough money to cover all the essential operations of our university.”
The inability to pay is attributed to a “multimillion rand debt owing to non-payment of fees by students”. These are poor and working-class students. “For over a century,” says the university’s statement, describing mainly colonial and apartheid years, “Rhodes students came from a social and economic stratum which could afford to pay fees. This is no longer the case.”
The statement explains how fees-payment policy changes in 2015, which eased what are for many students impossible financial burdens, have put the university in debt.
At best, UCKAR’s excuse deflects responsibility away from the university and appeals to the public to recognise the good heart behind the financial hardship. Even in this case, it presents worker demands as unrealistic and unsympathetic towards hand-wringing university administrators: in a word, irrational. The excuse also appears to be a cynical allusion to students who, in part through protests, demanded that the university acknowledge the socio-economic realities of South Africa and make itself accessible to more than a sliver-thick “stratum which could afford to pay fees”. In other words, these students, also thoughtless and unsympathetic, are responsible for workers’ poor wages. The argument is circuitous and anti-poor. It resembles a Ponzi scheme.
The same logic is expressed in a Business Day article of July 2016, which links university financial difficulties and implementation of austerity measures to the student protests. Certain austerity measures are outlined in the 10 May statement on the strike, and even in that document the impact on workers in dangerously unemployed and underemployed Grahamstown is clear: “A partial moratorium… on the filling of support staff vacancies”, and “a partial moratorium… on the re-grading of support staff posts”. In The Con, Vuyolwethu Toli notes that, in addition to an increase in wages and transport allowances, workers’ demands this month included abolishing pay grades 1 to 3. While workers worry about earning enough to live, the university worries over its brand.
In a recent, online “Alumni Transformation Survey”, the university brand is the focus. “How do you view Rhodes University’s brand recognition and reputation?” it asks. To this question, only the response “Dated and historically conflicted name” acknowledges transformation issues as raised by students since 2015.
When the colonial name of the university was contested during student protests around transformation in 2015, university administrators frequently invoked “the brand” in defence of the name. The name “Rhodes”, they argued, no longer denotes racial exploitation, but a quality education. If the Rhodes brand is lost, reputation and funding would go by the board as well. It was only one issue raised, but name change is the primary “transformational” question addressed in the survey. Most questions and selections come from the perspective that a name change will be detrimental to the brand, and a fear of losing “contributions” and “international prestige”. All eight responses – apart from “other” – to the question, “Where might a name change impact your relationship with the university?”, are negative.
The answer selections to a question on potential benefits of a name change are so vague as to be meaningless, essentially forcing one into the view that a name change is pure and vacuous symbolism. A name change was taken up by students as symbolic of more thorough-going, practical, and necessary changes to the institution. These have been reiterated ad nauseam by students and staff at many South African institutions, but university administrators have impervious stomachs. Two years of constant student and staff input on the question are not taken into account in this survey. Much of this input is acknowledged in phrases neatly btailored to avoid harming the brand: “Battered by bad press and campus/ community problems”, or “Minimise conflict, polarisation and perceived inequities”. In such phrases, active critics of the university are held responsible for any stains on the reputation.
The survey reveals again the university’s exceedingly superficial concept of transformation. It asks specifically if the colour palette and coat of arms should be retained, but relegates “unfair discrimination”, a “supportive environment for students from disadvantaged backgrounds”, and other euphemisms for important problems of race, class, and gender in student and staff experiences in and with the university to “agree-disagree” responses that test the waters of reputation without any substantive engagement. In this highly politicised questionnaire, even sceptical, let alone critical, alumni would have a difficult time making their position clear or highlighting any of the institution’s structural and cultural problems. The survey is designed to yield results that sell the brand.
This brand is international. It is the same Ivy League brand that overshadows striking workers at Harvard and the administration’s opposition to a graduate student union at Columbia. UCKAR portrays the brand this way: “an outstanding, internationally respected academic institution which proudly affirms its African identity and which is committed to democratic ideals, academic freedom, rigorous scholarship, sound moral values and social responsibility”.
One would think that after the protests at South Afric”n universities in 2015 and 2016, the scheme would have collapsed, that the “Home for All” bubble, inflated with a paper trail spouting inclusion, social responsibility, legalisms on discrimination, and the criminality of critics, would have burst. If students and workers willing to risk their degrees and employment are not signal enough that the university does not work for them, the alumni survey and the official statement on the strike encapsulate UCKAR’s attitudes: Reputation matters more than students and workers; so much, in fact, that the university will blame its poor students for the plight of its poor workers.
This is not the attitude of a “safe…and supportive” institution that “welcomes” constructive criticism like UCKAR professes to be in the 10 May statement. There is no loyalty to its community members. It is the attitude of a cynical corporation, anti-poor and seeking to divide its political critics. Soon, we can shift the blame back to the workers, for not earning enough to pay their children’s university fees. DM