South Africa: Ten Years of Democracy

University Restructuring: Whose Gain, Whose Pain, Whose Transformation?

Tuesday 20 January 2004, by Lucien VAN DER WALT

Mergers, rationalisation, cost-efficiency, and outsourcing have become the terms defining the "transformation" of the universities in post-apartheid South Africa. For all their sound and fury, recent debates on the changing institutional landscape of post-apartheid universities have been deafeningly silent about the fate of university workers- academics, administrative staff and support service workers. Yet it is these workers, these "ordinary people," who have borne the brunt of the neo-liberal restructuring of the sector. At the same time, the emerging model of the post-apartheid universities - lean, mean, and cost-conscious- has begun to commodify higher education, making education a commodity affordable only by the more affluent.


It is striking how rapidly the first post-apartheid government, elected in April 1994 and dominated by the African National Congress (ANC), has moved to adopt a neo-liberal policy framework. Since 1994, a series of shifts in the direction of the free market model- privatisation, budget cuts and fiscal austerity, economic liberalisation and labour market flexibility have taken place, culminating in the 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme (GEAR), which spelled out its intentions for higher education quite clearly. On the one hand, there was, GEAR argued, a "need to contain expenditure through reductions in subsidisation"; on the other, there must be "greater private sector involvement in higher education."

Education Minister Kader Asmal’s stated aim - the "creation of new South African higher education institutions based on the values and principles of non-racism and democracy"- has been married to a commitment, in short, to budget cuts and liberalisation. With subsidies falling, and, at the same time, being restructured to reward rationalisation and income generation, the universities have split into two.

Slash and Burn

The Historically Advantaged Institutions (HAIs) have seen their income from the State fall - Wits University’s funding, for example, fell by almost a third from 1995 to 2000 - and have become bent on transforming themselves into "market universities," raising additional income by focussing on fee-paying students, on expanding course offerings, and on contract-based research. The increase in student numbers through expanded course offerings - by distance education, by night classes, by short courses- has been a stricter recovery of student fees, shifting the student profile away from poorer working class, mainly African, students towards middle-class learners. Historically Disadvantaged Institutions (HDIs) have struggled, on the whole, to simply survive: with a general trend to falling student numbers, a poorer student body, and little to "market," they have focussed on demanding more government support.

It is against the backdrop of this HDI crisis - and of the drive to further reduce funding to the universities - that the State has refused to increase funding, choosing instead, from 2002 onwards, to stress the need to reduce the number of universities and technikons from 36 to 21 through mergers and closures. And it is against the backdrop of the restructuring of the sector that working conditions and job security at all the universities has worsened - a process bound to accelerate with the mergers.

The New Work Order

Research has shown that there has been a usurpation of traditional areas of academic authority by an expansive and increasingly powerful administration through the application of private sector management models. Coupled to the new focus on profitable core business has been a rationalisation of less (financially) viable disciplines - especially in the social sciences and humanities-, the increased surveillance of work and productivity, and a growing salary gap between academics and management. Workload has increased, and there has been growing competition between academic staff, increased job insecurity, and divisions between full-time staff and a growing cohort of contract staff. This has been coupled to administrative restructuring, with the redirection of administrative services towards the needs of management, rather than the teaching and research process. Hence, the increased stress on reporting, on justifying jobs, on justifying courses by their value-added, to an unsympathetic management.

A parallel process of restructuring has taken place amongst support service staff- the manual and menial workers who keep the universities running - such as caterers, cleaners, security, and maintenance. A survey in 2001 found that all public sector universities had outsourced at least one support service function, and that 18 out of 21 institutions had done so since 1994: for many HAIs, this was apart of a general drive to focus on the "core" business of marketisation; for most HDIs it was a response to financial crisis. And at least 5,000 out of a total of 15, 779 support service jobs were lost as support functions were contracted to private companies. Whilst HDIs were well represented amongst the universities that cut the most jobs - the University of Fort Hare, for instance, shed 1,000 - even HAIs undertook large-scale retrenchments. The University of the Witwatersrand cut 623 posts, and Potchefstroom over 400. Workers reemployed at outsourcing companies have been subject to dramatically lower wages, a loss of benefits, insecure contracts, more intense workplace discipline, and have undergone a general deunionisation. In only 2 out of 17 cases for which information was available, did unions have a recognition agreement with at least one outsourcing company. As one worker said: "We work harder, we do more work and there is tighter control by the supervisors." To this we could add that these workers also eat less and avoid going to a doctor if possible.

Solidarity Needed

The destructive logic of the situation is clear. Universities compete with one another for State support and for other types of income. Academics compete with one another for jobs, and with other components of the university for funds. Administrative staff struggle under new and increased workloads, and find themselves under the direct control of management that restructures their jobs. Support service workers compete for jobs and bite the bullet of low-wage, no-benefit, work in preference to the invisible prison of unemployment. And each group of workers competes with one another for resources, whilst resenting the increased pressures of the job and the increased demands of the students and the management. In this situation, the danger of mergers becomes crystal clear. The intellectual clichés which are used to justify mergers- sharing resources, building on strengths, and so on and so forth- and the political rhetoric- that mergers are transformation, are redistribution - disguise a more sinister process. As part of the neo-liberal agenda, funding for education, and especially higher education, falls, whilst the higher education sector is opened to the market and the universities become increasingly indistinct from corporations themselves. The staff, the poorer students, the research and the teaching- all fall by the wayside.

That is why it is imperative for the unions to organise to defend university workers - all university workers- and to replace the divisions between the staff components with unity and solidarity. That is why it is imperative to organise to reshape the universities, to pose against the model of the market university and the neo-liberal State the alternatives of the popular university and the social rights of working and poor people. That is why it is important to unify, to move away from being victims, to becoming masters of our own destiny. That is why campaigns and actions, university solidarity and solidarity between the staff and the students within and between the universities is so vital. It is only with solidarity that the neo-liberal offensive can be halted, and the outlines of a new world - for a "new world is possible"- will become visible.

Lucien van der Walt teaches at the University of the Witwatersrand

This story was first released on the African Centre for Civil Society

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