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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