Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

UKZN is failing its students

By Matthew Beetar

If Monty Python were still in business they would need look no further than the University of KwaZulu-Natal for material. The absurdity of the management of the institution, ironically pitched to be “inspiring greatness”, has reached a new level of disregard for the staff and students. The coping mechanism of laughing instead of crying, which has worked thus far for many employees, seems to have finally failed.

At approximately 4pm on Wednesday management announced that the university would close a week early for the vacation, and that all assignments would be (magically) rescheduled for next term. This message was distributed via email and on the Facebook page. The academic staff were given no notice. An entire week of lectures, assignments, and tests — schedules carefully planned weeks before semester began — was dismissed with the expectation that they would “simply” be rescheduled.

Now of course this is not worthy of a complete meltdown in morale, but it builds on a year that has been incredibly frustrating and demeaning for those involved with the institution. It speaks of the chronic disregard that management has for the actual processes of education. Aside from the publicised strikes on the Howard College campus (which now, conveniently, will not gain as much attention as it is suddenly the vacation), the university has been plagued by internal inconsistencies and misinformation.

For example three weeks before semester began the college of humanities was told that due to budget restrictions there is no money for graduate assistants — despite the fact that planning took place in November 2012.

Up to three days before teaching was to begin some contract staff were told their contracts had been terminated with immediate effect.

The university released new ad-hoc rates to encourage external lecturing expertise, only to later inform departments that there was, in fact, no money to pay these higher rates. And in some cases, no money to pay any rates at all.

Departments relying on vacancies to be filled in order to keep a manageable student to staff ratio were told that these vacancies have been permanently frozen and that current staff simply have to pick up the extra work.

The list of demands placed on permanent academic staff by management is endless.

I am not a permanent member of staff — if I was I would be breaking my contract by writing this, as permanent staff are expressly forbidden from writing anything that may bring the university’s name into disrepute. But I have spent the last eight years involved in various capacities with UKZN. I have worked at the university since 2011 and although there has been an endless stream of issues (I’m still awaiting payment for work done in 2012) I have felt that the experience of lecturing is invaluable and that I can give something back to the university that inspired me.

My dominant feeling now, however, is outrage: outrage that academics who have invested years in the institution are being unceremoniously treated as pockmarks on the face of what is increasingly becoming a corporate enterprise.

I am outraged that those who helped build the university, those who dedicated their lives to the pursuit of social justice and knowledge in the tertiary environment, are having their legacies besmirched by what seems like an endless stream of controversy.

But more than this, I am outraged that current students are being severely disadvantaged by processes pitched as ”positive transformation”. This semester seems to mark an explicit decline of the value placed on education at a broad institutional level. Although many lecturers still invest all the time and effort they can into teaching and knowledge-building, one can only do so much when one’s department is understaffed, lacking in funds, and under constant managerial pressure to focus on producing journal articles rather than teaching. Many current students within the school of arts, for example, no longer have the benefit of tutorials. Current students will suffer at the end of the semester when they will be expected to write exams four days after lectures end due to the study week being eliminated by management to give an extra week of holiday. Current students are presently suffering from the accommodation crisis.

I used to be a proud advocate for UKZN. I used to encourage students to apply. On the current trajectory, this will no longer be the case, because I am ashamed and angry. Judging by the comments on the Facebook page, I am not alone in feeling this way.

I am ashamed of the management and I am angry at the direction in which it is taking the university. I am ashamed of the seeming disregard that management has for staff and students, and I am angry that management expects all staff and students to simply toe the line.

But most of all I am angry with myself for expressing, in my open letter last year, the belief that things would somehow change and improve. While change is slow, the events of the last year — the last semester in particular — make it clear that little effort is being made to meaningfully engage with those ”lowly” employees who actually make a university a place of learning. I am angry because I care about education, I care about my department and I cared about UKZN.

The project of transformation at UKZN has been successful in the sense that it has transformed into a model for what not to do at a tertiary institution. Management is only fooling itself if it thinks that UKZN is the premier university of African scholarship.

Matthew Beetar is a UKZN and Sussex alumnus. He studied his undergraduate, honours and first master’s at UKZN. He writes this in his personal capacity, without the knowledge of any staff of his school and does not necessarily reflect the views of all employees of UKZN.

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    • suntosh

      Well done, Matthew, for speaking truth to power.

      The culture of passivity (or earned helplessness, perhaps?) that has overtaken demotivated staff, means that very few are publicly speaking out.

      “permanent staff are expressly forbidden from writing anything that may bring the university’s name into disrepute”:
      Can you imagine? A university – the very institution sanctioned to encourage free speech, debate, fierce argument and criticism, cannot tolerate and encourage its own staff to be autonomous, free-thinking agents?!

      Despite the amazing stats UKZN produces in terms of quantitative transformation and research output, the myopic disregard for the damage done in the process of “Africanisation”, by turning a place of teaching and learning into a fearful corporate enterprise, will continue to scare away both staff and students.

      I am hopeful that if all the incompetent megalomaniacs in positions of power are rooted out, UKZN can recapture former glory.

    • Herriie

      That single word ‘transformation’ has heralded more mischief to the intellectual integrity of our universities than even the old Apartheid cry of ‘eiesoortigheid’. These two slogans have one thing in common: They are simply euphemisms for interference in the autonomy of universities in order to carry out a race-obsessed political agenda. Universities, like all intellectual enterprises,evolve naturally over time. Change cannot be brought about by revolutionary means — or by legislation and bullying. Least oi all can change be brought about by political and ideological interference. Because of the nature of my work I have been in a unique position to judge the impact of ‘transformation’ on academia. It can be summed up in one word: disastrous. Some of our universities — the ones that enthusiastically climbed into ‘transformation’ boots and all, will regret their eagerness to please ideologues for years to come. The only universities that will not look back with regret are the ones that managed to accomplish ‘transformation’ in such a way as not to accomplish it at all.

    • Young Academic

      Matt, these observations are absolutely spot on! There is a tragic lack of leadership at UKZN – particularly in its top and middle management. Thousands of students are being denied a meaningful tertiary education because standards, ethics, and efficiency are being sacrificed at the altar of “protecting the incompetent though politically well connected”. With a dubious history and a pathetic track-record, the VC has no place in an institution of higher learning.

      Is it, perhaps, time for students to rise up and demand quality education and for staff to mobilise and insist on professional working conditions conducive to ensuring the highest standards of teaching and scholarship?

    • Nduduzo Msibi

      I also wrote an article about the recent strike at the Howard campus. Its on page 8 of the Mercury newspaper (22 March 2012) title “Ill-treatment of students is a human rights violation”.

    • Matthew B

      @suntosh: I share your hope! A serious change in structure and management is needed for a start.

      @Herrie: Thanks for the insight. So much seems to be excused and justified under this buzzword of ‘transformation’.

      @Young Academic: I think more than the students rising up is needed – the students and staff need to stand united, for a long period, until effective changes are implemented. The unfortunate reality is that protesting isn’t noticed or effectively dealt with by the university. Whatever the next steps are, they need to be drastic and rooted in a shared vision for the future of the university.

      @Just a thought: Thanks for the comment. I think many are in a similar position: many of the actual academics and lecturers are incredible individuals who are internationally recognised as being among the best in their respective fields. These individuals, however, are bogged down by ludicrous administrative demands and are dismissed as ‘resisting transformation’. My sincere fear is that the desire to rectify things at UKZN is waning – what will happen when all the academics leave, and all the students stop caring?

      @Nduduzo: I’ll see if I can find a copy!

    • bernpm

      “Blade Nzimande is the Minister of Higher Education and Training of South Africa. He served as director of the Education Policy Unit at the University of Natal. Nzimande is a member of the African National Congress and has served as the General-Secretary of the South African Communist Party. ” (

      The Minister is also director of the Education Policy Unit at KZN. beginning to make sense????

      Encourage students to look for and start simple jobs or businesses and study their subjects using internet and books. Make older workers and retirees your friends. They will be pleased to help if you are serious about your intentions.

      The paper you get when finished at your University is quickly loosing credibility not only in the world but also in SA. Pity???yes! But it is your life and future.

    • Wholly in Agreement

      I am currently a student at UKZN and could not agree more with the letter submitted by Matthew. The situation for both staff and students is untolerable. Dedicated staff are in certain cases teaching without receiving an income – the situation is unthinkable!

    • Dylan Macdonald

      This situation exactly mirrors what I experienced at NMMU 3 years ago (before I resigned in disgust).
      Eventually all of our universities will have been “transformed” and South African degrees will not be worth the paper that they are printed on.

    • Tasmi Quazi

      Thank you for having the courage to talk about these challenges. I can concur with the comment by “#Just a thought” above, that I had the privilege of being taught by accomplished and passionate staff and administration at UKZN’s School of Development Studies, which nurtured an equally impassioned body of students. However, we consider ourselves lucky for having escaped just in time before a lot of these travesties of management have escalated and just before the exodus of great staff members.

      Regarding the current challenges, I speak through first-hand accounts of close friends that are staff and students on the receiving end. Please UKZN management, review and reform towards responsible management. For the sake of cultivating progressive education which brings stability to the country and its future during these troubled times.

    • Anonymous

      I was once contacted to do work for UKZN and part of my job was to step into the vice chancellor’s office.

      We had to wait 20 minutes, beyond our budget for the work we were contracted for, simply so that he could finish his tea. It’s weird because I was such a fan of all his achievements (Wikipedia him, he’s done some amazing stuff) yet now he is like a dictator. The money and status has clearly gone to his head,

      Prof Malegapuru William Makgoba, if you are reading this, why don’t you do something? Make a video statement and upload it to facebook and youtube. Outline it. Or just sit there any enjoy your tea.

      If you are still the man that has fought for those aids initiatives then show it.

    • Nic Crooks

      Very sad to see an educational institution draining itself of the very people who make it great. I think that the management of UKZN do not know that they are training the young minds who will determine the future of our nation. This sort of short term self interest before the long term interests of the nation are seen in many of our educational and other systems. Where is the national vision? I for one would be happy with some local leadership vision not involved with power and ego, educational institutes are built to educate they are not the playgrounds for power.

    • Matthew B

      @Tasmi, @Anonymous: It really is unfortunate – there are some incredible academics with incredible passion.

      I agree wholeheartedly with the comment by bernpm: students need to be active and take ownership of the situation, to move beyond simply striking, and be agents of positive change. Sitting by and complaining won’t achieve anything – it’s quite clear that the management is completely disinterested in any complaints or anxieties.

    • ukzn student

      There are so many things in a mess with UKZN. Firstly people’s safety is being put at risk either during protests or because they are waiting on the street until 4AM in the middle of town because they have no place to stay.

      Second, people are either not being paid for services rendered (contract staff, even student tutors), or they are not receiving services they’ve paid for (again, the 560 Renaissance Res students, and the students unable to go to class or use campus facilities because of disruptive, often violent protests).

      Third, there is NO proper communication (and students seem to be learning this habit from UKZN). Nobody gets told anything unless there’s a possibility the issue will be made public elsewhere. There is always an “orange alert” for these protests because the strike action must be acknowledged but UKZN does not want to acknowledge the severity – so if you hear there is a protest, you either go to class and wait to be intimidated/kicked out/actually injured, or stay home and risk being told missing class is on you because for ONCE protests were peaceful. Students are learning this bad habit – the behaviour is let’s strike violently first, without telling anyone why, infringing on other students’ rights to try get what we deserve, and if that doesn’t work we will then ask those same alienated students to stand with us in peaceful protest. Makes no sense!

      There are other big questions I have too. Like why does UKZN accept more students than…

    • The Creator

      It takes a lot of guts to write a paper like this.

      Anonymous, I think you’re mistaken to think that Makgoba ever did much good. He did a lot of damage at Wits, he did nothing effectual at the Medical Research Council, and he’s really trashed UKZN by all accounts. Evidently he massively underestimated the difficulties of combining Westville, Howard and Maritzburg cultures (as, of course, did the idiots who proposed the merger).

    • Karney

      As they say, ” a fish rots from the head down”.

    • Milda

      Well written Matthew.
      I agree, I am sad, angry, frustrated and distressed about the development at UKZN, which used to be a place I recommended co-students from Norway to apply to. Currently, I am trying to finish and leave as quickly as I possibly can.

    • Kieran

      Nduduzo’s Mercury article makes a great accompaniment to this one, and is the only one so far that I’ve seen which actually gives details of the plight of the 560 students which prompted the strikes.

      If anyone’s interested, it can be found online here:

    • Kieran
    • Marilyn Pattenden

      Three generations of my family have attended this university because it had so much to recommend it and many of the departments had lecturers and professors of such an excellent calibre that it was ridiculous to consider going anywhere else. During the last generation’s attendance at this institution the changes wrought by management beggar belief. Superb departments are being neglected to such an extent that current staff will soon burn out. And whoever heard of a library being so underfunded that there was no budget for journal subscriptions! Can understand reducing books but journals??? This means that e-journals cannot be accessed this year and as a result previous years cannot be accessed either. Dark ages here we come. My sympathies to all registered students – you are being short changed. My sympathies to teaching staff – an untenable situation.

    • Jack Sparrow

      I made a similar comment to another TL and it got censored (why I do not know as it was quite innocuous; or so I thought; Big Brother is sensitive for some reason) so I hope this one gets through.

      I believe that the effective dumbing down of UKZN, and education in general in SA, has nothing to do with transformation, “Africanisation” or any of the stated objectives of cadre deployees like Magoba and Nzimande. It’s all about personal power and wealth (looting) and the target of ensuring that “educated” citizens cannot question the government sensibly due to having deliberately been set up to have a blinkered education. That is why the ANC doesn’t care about text book delivery (no one is fired), university “strikes”, teacher strikes etc etc. Poor education will ensure an un-questioning, docile population. Exactly what the looters of SA want.

    • suntosh

      @michael: while I’m very critical of the way “Africanisation” is being “done” at UKZN, there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to make a university reflect the country and continent in which it is based.
      Your statement, “transformation means africanization and and that means a long process towards general third world standards.Remember this is Africa” is plain, old-fashioned racism.

    • Philippa

      Suntosh I agree with your distancing yourself from michael’s ‘this is africa’ statement. The dilemma is that when we (I’m white) criticise Makgoba and all the sadness and disaster at UKZN we come very, very close to that ostensibly-non-race-based-but-actually-race-based criticism which is indistinuishable from racism. I am suspicious of that trope of black incompetence/politicking for that reason, even though I agree that Makgoba needs to go and would join a protest to that effect. It perplexes me that criticism like Matthew’s article, of what I agree is a terrible situation, so easily gets co-opted by this kind of racism (like michael).
      My brother and I the other day were talking about nepotism among white colleagues at another more famous but less transformed university – the kind of thing that probably doesn’t make it into the complaining blogs as much as disasters that happen in the name of ‘transformation’ (read blackness) do.

    • Philippa

      And can we really say that the old white universities were not created out of ‘political interference’????? The whole system was political from beginning to end. But now that political interference is being used to de-white-ify the universities, suddenly it’s a bad thing?

    • Matthew B

      @Philippa: I agree with both you and Suntosh. I agree that this kind of criticism can easily be co-opted by discourses of racism. This is certainly not the underlying ideology of my piece. Was/is some form of transformation (I prefer the term ‘reconciliation’ – it seems to be less-loaded) needed at SA universities? Absolutely.

      My issue, however, is with the management strategy at UKZN. Maybe this is caught up in historical issues of race/power/change – it would probably be naive to think otherwise. My concern stems from the day-to-day impact that all of this has on teaching and on students.

      I think the flip-side of the argument that critiques, such as this piece, can be adopted by racist discourses is that ‘anti-racist discourses’ (which too are often racist) can just dismiss critiques as “being racist” and therefore not worthy of attention. Whilst it is important to remain conscious of race dynamics I think it would be a mistake to let this discourse overshadow the reality that is, as you put it, the “terrible situation” at UKZN.

    • Skerminkel

      But @Philippa, we have all agreed that the Nats were worse than the Nazis years ago! Why now go and use their actions as an excuse to do the same again?

    • Lunga Msimang

      Ultimately, what I think we have here is a challenge that will test our characters. I’m a current student and seeing an article like this shows that the gauntlet has been thrown down. What must happen now? I don’t condone it, but it is understandable how anger flares and people feel entitled to criticise on the basis of things like race, which really have nothing to do with incompetence (thanks for addressing that Suntosh, evidently we all have something to learn about contributing to this country in our individual capacities and to not grow content to merely shout from our soap boxes). I’ve read all of these insightful comments but my next question is where to from here? What recourse is there for those of us who see an article like this and draw courage to at least say we want to do something to ensure that our degrees are worth more than toilet paper and that we as a proactive citizenry can stand up and implement change.

    • Philippa

      Ok it looked like I’m saying that two wrongs make a right. I wasn’t saying that. What I’m saying is that criticism from non-blacks of black leadership and institutions as such is mostly highly selective and the critics usually conveniently ignore all the things that whites/white institutions/the old government do wrong. I’m sure not many whites would be complaining about political interference if/when it worked in their favour. We pretend that the old system was free of all the evils that the current system is doing badly at, so that we can keep our sense of moral outrage intact. In fact, the old system did lots of the same stuff, like corruption, nepotism, political interference, etc etc, it’s just that it worked in our favour. This kind of selectivity in what we criticise is actually hypocrisy on the part of whites, I think. But yes, you are right, that doesn’t mean that this time it’s ok, just because it happened in the old days too. So my comment is an aside point. I have also had first hand experience of the bad management of UKZN and agree that it is in crisis.

    • michael

      Philippa, you agree ukzn is in crisis, now stop procrastinating because you are tying yourself in knots.Just ask yourself why it is failing, the reason is that africa is very poor at management and administration. It does not make them bad or evil it shows a weakness that can be overcome. Twenty years ago universities were racist but well managed in general.Africa. Makgoba is a very poor VC reinforces the stereotyping.

    • Ophthal

      Is this the same Makgoba that was pushed out of Wits in 1995 after refusing to attend a meeting called to allow him to explain certain falsifications in his CV?

    • sanele

      thanks mathews man this is a wonderful work. i wish you can see my article that they have taken and they do not want me to publish it which i have writen last year based on how our education has turned to a commodity.

    • Disgusted Parent

      Well done Matthew. UKZN HAS TO BE INVESTIGATED. Like Karney said, ” a fish rots from the head down”.

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