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Are South African universities under assault?

- Adam Habib

Declining subsidies and fees coupled with increasing demands for higher remuneration could jeopardise the future sustainability of universities in South Africa.

Maybe assault is too harsh a word, as it suggests premeditated, malevolent intent and I do not believe that this is the case. But the recent actions of a variety of stakeholders, both internal and external, effectively amount to an assault on the very soul of universities, which could compromise their future sustainability. This would be tragic as universities, and in particular the research-intensive universities in South Africa, represent one of the last bastions of quality higher education in Africa, essential for the creation of new knowledge and for producing high level skills to ensure the inclusive development of the continent.

There are three key challenges facing the high education sector – the competing demands for limited resources in an environment where policy directives are not adequately substantiated and funded; an ongoing political destabilization of universities where these institutions are often used as a political football by politicians and political parties; and increasing remuneration and other demands from internal role players who are impervious to the realities of managing complex higher education institutions in the current global economy. I have already publicly reflected on the former two challenges on multiple occasions. Allow me to elaborate on the third using a recent example.

In January 2018, industrial action, largely co-ordinated through national unions, erupted at some universities, including Wits University. The strikes were not as disruptive as recent student protests, although at Wits University, some individuals were threatened and assaulted, bathrooms were flooded, rubbish bins were overturned, sewerage systems were blocked and in one case, waste was released. While union leaders may view these actions as ‘peaceful’ and mere administrative inconvenience, such events fracture the university community and inhibit thoughtful deliberation and the free exchange of ideas, essential pillars of any university.

More worryingly, these strikes and the demands by local union leaders reflected the inability of some internal stakeholders to recognise that there are competing demands on the university’s limited resources and that measured, balanced negotiation is necessary to ensure that the university remains financially sustainable in the long-term.

After six months of negotiation, and despite an offer of a 6.8% salary increase (and 8% for staff on the lower grades) – remuneration offers that were significantly above inflation – all of the unions declared a stalemate and two of them embarked on industrial action in late January 2018. Their demand was for substantively higher salary increases even though they were perhaps some of the best paid staff in the university sector.

Moreover, their demand was made in a context where there were significant uncertainties around income, in part due to the recent announcement by then president Jacob Zuma of free education for students with a family income of less than R350,000 per annum.

Of course, it is incumbent on all public universities to remunerate staff appropriately, which is why Wits University had for the past few years systematically benchmarked the salaries of its employees against the rest of the sector and ensured that its remuneration was at a competitive level in relation to other universities.

But we also recognised that our relatively generous remuneration of employees must be balanced against the need for investment in academic programmes, equipment, infrastructure and maintenance, in order to sustain quality teaching, learning and research, which are the core mandates of universities. If we bend the stick too much in one direction, then we violate one or another of our mandates. We therefore need to find an appropriate balance between competing priorities, which requires a fiscal and political maturity from university leaders and a measuredness from employees and students.

It needs to be underscored that universities are largely funded through state subsidies and student fees, and if either income stream is constrained, it impacts severely on the available resources. At the moment, university leaders are caught in a pincer by students who do not want to pay fees, below inflation increases in subsidy from government, and demands for high remuneration from employees. This scenario is just not sustainable and if it persists, the fiscal stranglehold on universities will begin to undermine quality.

It should also be noted that many universities across the country insourced large numbers of staff in the last two years as part of the commitment to social justice and to ensure that those who work on our campuses earn a living wage. At Wits, this entailed 1,500 vulnerable staff being insourced at a cost of R130-million. Within a year, the salaries of these vulnerable workers were doubled and their benefits were substantially increased. Yet the demand for higher salaries in 2018 was made without consideration for this and the numerous competing demands on the university’s finite budget.

Insourcing has also put universities at higher risk of ongoing industrial action, which ultimately results in a constant destabilisation of the sector. Union leaders argue that industrial action can be avoided if their demands are met. However, while union leaders are meant to advance the demands of their members, this does not mean that these demands can be considered outside of the institutional and wider sectoral context in which we find ourselves.

If this pattern continues, it will impact on the future sustainability of higher education institutions, which will eventually lead to a decline in quality, an inability to attract staff and students, and ultimately retrenchments in the universities. To avoid this scenario, we need to pro-actively address the emerging challenge. One way to do this is for union and university leaders to consider multi-year salary negotiation agreements, in order to protect the rights of employees while still ensuring that the sector remains stable. We may also need to consider differential salary agreements that prioritises the poorest among ourselves, although this needs to be time-bound lest we create unintended consequences down the line.

Finally, it would be remiss not to consider the nature of the strike action at universities in recent years. I know Wits best, so will use a recent example to illustrate the point. In January this year, Wits’ newly insourced security personnel heeded calls from their unions to “down tools” and abandon their posts. This put the university at serious risk. Security personnel are after all primarily employed to keep universities, students and employees safe. Ironically, during the recent strike, universities had to bring in external security at an additional cost to protect students, staff and public property. Again, to avoid an incentive emerging for universities to outsource security services, it may be prudent for union leaders and university administrators to pro-actively consider whether campus security should be classified as an essential service.

All of these issues are of course difficult matters to consider. But it is important for national union leaders and internal stakeholders to remember that universities have a mandate to advance the public good and should not be treated like any other industrial workplace. They certainly should not be used as a political tool to advance narrow sectoral agendas.

Rather, it is essential for all stakeholders – university and union leaders, staff, students and political leaders – to work together with integrity to achieve the necessary balance between the short-term needs of each constituency and the long-term institutional obligations to our country.

If we fail to do this, we will compromise the very soul of our universities, undermine the last cohort of quality higher education institutions on the African continent, and once again jeopardise our institutional ability to enable inclusive development.

Professor Adam Habib is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University. This article first appeared on the Daily Maverick.