Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

UKZN crisis – a letter to management

As has been reported in several media sources, the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) faces another crisis, several contract staff members have not been paid for up to four months of work. Many of those who have been paid have not been paid in full.

UKZN management has consistently denied or downplayed the issue, as discussed on the UKZN Student Action Facebook group. Although many people have had salary problems resolved, many more still face non-payment — only several weeks from the end of the first semester. Despite following official channels of communication, contract staff, including postgraduate tutors, who have complained have been given a variety of internal excuses: The failure of new software, administrative complications, departmental restructure issues, and (my personal favourite) contract staff “misreading their contracts”.

Ironically, this has occurred while the university has been launching its new tagline, “inspiring greatness”.

Setting aside my frustration for my peers who have not received payment for work they have done, I find myself highly disturbed by the attitude that the university has conveyed in its official statements to the press. As a result of my anxiety and disappointment I have written the following letter to the university:

Dear UKZN Management,

I am writing this follow-up letter in the spirit of optimism, it being my understanding that steps are currently being taken to investigate the various issues surrounding payment. My own personal investigations have led me to realise that the problems lie in multiple areas — and so I recognise that this is a complicated situation to resolve.

Within a similar mind-set of open dialogue, I would like to express my concern with the official corporate relations statements that have been expressed in various media sources. I hope that you can shed some light on these views.

During the course of being involved with the university in various capacities over the last 7-years, I have always had the impression that, despite minor annual hiccups, UKZN has always had the advancement of learning and the promotion of professional relationships as two of its core goals. This view has certainly been the result of working with several fantastic departments.

I have always had the distinct impression that certain members of upper management have encouraged the recognition of the importance of tutors and contract staff members — both in terms of the role that they play in the advancement of student education, and in terms of the way that the position of tutor is a ‘stepping stone’ to becoming potential academics. I have always promoted the university because I acknowledge the sterling educative grounding that the university has given me, and the opportunity that the university has given me to be involved in academic teaching.

This said, I find myself deeply disturbed by some of the comments from UKZN spokespersons which have aired / been printed in various news sources. Setting aside the fact that none of my peers who have been affected have received personal explanations as to what the problem is, these comments do not reflect an attitude of reconciliation and a valuing of open communication.

Firstly, regarding the impression that was given during a radio interview last week, the spokesperson interviewed expressed the view that tutors who complain are “rising above their station” and that, according to official university rates, should only be receiving a set amount of money “per session”.

This conveys a drastic misunderstanding of the discontent: Tutors, and other contract staff, are not upset because of the rate of pay, but rather because some people have not been paid at all, and some who have been paid have received amounts different from those stipulated on their appointment forms and contracts.

The view that those who complain are stepping out of line, so to speak, is also distinctly antagonistic. It suggests the university does not hold contract staff in high regard. Rather than conveying a desirable approach of facilitating dialogue, it conveys an approach of ‘reprimand and dismiss’. I sincerely hope that I am mistaken in this interpretation.

Secondly, the view expressed by the Executive Director of Corporate Relations in The Times that “the university is not aware of any planned student protest action, and with regards to the staff, the no work no pay rule will apply” is equally disturbing.

It reflects another misunderstanding of the situation — some staff members are protesting precisely because they are not being paid. It suggests that the university views this situation as a minor inconvenience, and something that can be resolved, from an institutional perspective, through threats and antagonism.

When people working in the tertiary education sector turn to protest it reflects a dire need to be heard, and a need to be engaged with. I do not believe that any of the academic staff at UKZN would make the decision to protest on a whim. Decisions to protest suggest that there is extraordinary dissatisfaction with the relationship between contract staff and the university, and I fail to see how making threats will help remedy this.

I also fail to see how such an attitude will attract educators in the future. I am confident that any time lost due to protest action would be made up by respective contract staff, as they realise how important this time is to students. So the decision to react in this manner troubles me. It is unnecessary, counter-productive, and potentially damaging.

The official views that contract staff have encountered have ranged from a denial of the problem, to a downplay of how many are affected, to a reprimanding of those questioning their pay, to a threat of non-payment for those protesting their current non-payment. None of these responses reflect the attitude of respect which I have led (fooled?) myself to believe underpins the university.

This entire unfortunate situation epitomises a failed communication structure, and the attitudes conveyed reveal a potentially dark future for tertiary education at the university. Perhaps it is because I am involved in the department which teaches Public Relations that I can assume that had parties affected by this received a personal email or phone call explaining what the issue is, rather than read about official views in the media, there would have been far less negative press and far less discontent.

Not only would this have been a preferable outcome for all parties concerned, but it also would have enforced a culture of mutual respect and reconciliation. Instead, the situation has resulted in extreme discontent: lecturers are leaving their posts, and in personal communications I have discovered that several potential post-graduate students have decided to avoid pursuing future studies at the university.

As I said at the beginning of this letter, these are just interpretations that I have of the responses from the university. Perhaps my discomfort is unfounded. I hope it is. It would be disheartening to discover that I, and other postgraduates and graduates, have been grandly fooling us in our views of and investment in the institution.

Kind regards,

Matthew Beetar

Matthew is an alumnus of Sussex University and UKZN, and has been working as an ad-hoc lecturer on the Pietermaritzburg campus

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