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On 24 February 2000, Professor Colin Bundy, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand and esteemed intellectual of the left, "regretfully" announced that the University's Council had approved the retrenchment of 600 employees working in services such as cleaning, maintenance, catering and transport. The retrenchment was part of a plan of "fundamental changes" called Wits 2001. Wits 2001 was designed by a 5-person committee that includes Bundy, the deputy vice-chancellors and Wits' human resource manager. The plan seeks to reduce the number of faculties at the university from nine to six and to replace the current 99 departments with approximately 30-40 "academic entities." (jbv)

vol 15 no 4

Lean and very mean: Restructuring Wits University
Franco Barchiesi

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, VOL 15 NO 4, October 2000
Page 24
"South Africa"



Franco Barchiesi is in the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

On 24 February 2000, Professor Colin Bundy, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand and esteemed intellectual of the left, "regretfully" announced that the University's Council had approved the retrenchment of 600 employees working in services such as cleaning, maintenance, catering and transport. The retrenchment was part of a plan of "fundamental changes" called Wits 2001. Wits 2001 was designed by a 5-person committee that includes Bundy, the deputy vice-chancellors and Wits' human resource manager. The plan seeks to reduce the number of faculties at the university from nine to six and to replace the current 99 departments with approximately 3040 "academic entities."

The Wits administration argues that restructuring is a necessary response to significant cuts in the tertiary education subsidy, declining student numbers, proliferating numbers of courses and collapsing morale among academic staff. The plan targets three areas: the number and size of academic entities, appropriate staffing levels, and staff-to-student ratios.

A new Academic Restructuring Review Committee (ARRC), appointed by the Council, is making the recommendations. Academic Planning and Restructuring Committees at the faculty level will propose measures to implement the restructuring plan. Faculties and executive deans have been given three years to adapt their priorities to the program outlined by the ARRC.

Their only real task, however, is to ensure that scarce resources are used "cost-effectively." The power to define priorities and distribute resources remains highly concentrated in the university's "senior executive team." In other words, the restructuring process follows a typical pattern of technocratic decision-making that confines the debate to how to use the resources allocated from the top to comply with priorities also determined at the top. Staff, students and workers were offered no meaningful input into the decision-making process.

The administration's assessment of Wit's situation deliberately avoids to consider important expenditures other than staffing and employment such as management-related remunerations, costly infrastructures such as "anti-crime" electronic security gates and image-related investments like vehicle access gateways. The administration has not accounted for the University's financial reserves and patterns of investment in exploring ways to cut costs. Since the administration has the power to exclude such data from the restructuring agenda, downsizing seemed to be the only logical option.

University as investment

The reorientation of the state has given rise to the "corporate university:" a business enterprise able to sustain itself with market profits, a powerful economic actor in local economic restructuring, an institution thus able to attract staff, students and investment on a global scale. The notion of "academic excellence" thus can be measured across the global academic marketplace. Like business notions of "quality" and "professionalism," "academic excellence" becomes the yardstick against which global capital can measure its "opportunity costs" and profit potentials of investing in specific tertiary institutions.

These radical changes to South Africa's education policy have evolved in a context marked by spiralling unemployment and corporate restructuring, resulting in approximately 100,000 job losses a year in the first five years of ANC rule. New employment is usually casual or contract. Student enrolments at Wits have declined in this context from 19,396 to 17,735 between 1991 and 1998, after 20 years steady increases in student registration.

It can be argued that the combination of the impoverishment among the waged population, rising unemployment, widening social inequalities and increasing employment insecurity is leading families to conclude that they cannot afford a university education for their children, especially when its "marketable skills" are already in question. These processes reflect similar forms of exclusion from other commodified social services such as health care, water, electricity and housing. It indicates the failure of the nascent South African democracy to define a model of university that is accessible to the demand for knowledge coming from marginalized communities.

The 1999 Shaping the Future strategic plan provided a broader intellectual agenda for restructuring at Wits. The plan states that: "In order to compete, universities have had to become most cost-conscious and less reliant upon tradition and externally funded autonomy," intensifying "the trend from `collegial' to `managerial' governance of universities." If the rise of the corporate university involves a new emphasis on the institution's capacity to reduce "externally funded autonomy," the consequence is that an increasing share of the university's income will depend on attracting private investment and redefining the university's own role as an investor.

Such changes are emphasized in Wits' Income Generation Programme (IGP). Shaping the Future defines one of Wits priorities as research that is focused on target areas such as socio-economic problems, health (i.e. cooperation with private hospitals), engineering, and technology. At the same time, a "University company" has been proposed for the "optimisation of revenue opportunities from intellectual property and from entrepreneurial activities" and to "promote revenue-generating activities and create approaches for entrepreneurial approaches across the university."

Wits' IGP is funded in part by one million rand provided by the mining corporation Goldfields. More money is being sought from Anglo/De Beers, the Ford Foundation and major financial conglomerates Investec, Coronation and Liberty Life. The program's former director, Robin Lee, describes the program as a step towards redefining Wits as an "enterprising university" or a "business university."

The idea behind the IGP is for staff to relinquish permanent, publicly-funded posts and become dependent on selling courses to wealthy private clients. The IGP seeks to "initiate and drive changes in the ways in which significant sectors of the university are funded and managed." These include outsourcing and subcontracting catering, residences, and, more ominously, research.

In short, the proposals to downsize and retrench are not just responding to contingent needs for "rationalisation." Rather, they had already been conceived as necessary to foster Wits' economic efficiency in the eyes of investors and to boost the concept of the university-as-corporation. This also means that student recruitment and admissions will have to be run "entrepreneurially, rather than bureaucratically," casting serious doubt on democratizing access to tertiary education in South Africa.

University as investor

The IGP portrays a future in which the University itself becomes an investor in local economic restructuring, for example, by developing new technologies for the mining or telecommunications industries. The University of Manchester Institute for Science and Technology (UMIST), which administers all of that university's research through a wholly-owned, self-sustained private company, is an example for the IGP. The role of such a company is to regulate research contracts and to identify the private funders/customers. Such customers, in turn, ensure the "viability" and profitability of university research. In this model, the university becomes a franchising agency that allows its "brand" to be used only in projects that respond to the needs of economic actors that are powerful enough to guarantee an economic return. This is a far cry from the notion of the university as a public research institution promoting a diversified, general, and critical knowledge. Moreover, there is a danger that departments and faculties will be rated according to their "income generation" potential, which will greatly determine future decisions about restructuring and downsizing. The market thus becomes the central regulator of intellectual life while at the same time disciplining critical and dissident voices into providing research that meets market needs. Only in this way can university intellectuals avoid carrying the brunt of the next "rationalisation" phase.

Since the vision implies an increasing delegation of funding arrangements and research outcomes to the private sector, this process can best be described as one of privatization even if Wits will remain a nominally public university. All that would be left of the intellectual context of the university would be a notion of "academic excellence" as a way to mobilize the loyalty of academics through emotional, consent-generating buzz words such as "world-class African university" at the service of the "Renaissance" and the "progressive" aim of breaking the domination by "bureaucracy." Left-wing academic support is thus recruited for a project that de facto redefines the main function of higher education as boosting corporate capital's profit-making capacity.

The events at Wits are the culmination of four years of intense restructuring that has affected all major South African tertiary institutions. A common thread, often disguised behind the moral imperative of equalizing the resources allocated to "historically black" and "historically white" institutions, has been a renewed emphasis on the market as a decisive regulator of intellectual life. The 1997 recommendations of the National Commission on Higher Education, for instance, endorsed new university structures geared towards public-funding policies that emphasize "applied" education, cost-effectiveness and partnership with external public and private actors.

The restructuring process has been accompanied by managerial rhetoric aimed at identifying the "market potential" and the income-generation capabilities of programmes, curricula, courses, research and publications. In a situation where increasingly, departments and "entities" will be run as independent business units, corporate investors and top academics teaching "marketable" courses in "marketable" faculties would be liberated from the burden of subsidizing programmes or departments that are not cost-effective. At a June 1999 workshop hosted by the Sociology Department at Wits, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Leila Patel said that in the future, departments will have to raise their own income, including by offering short courses for affluent private clients. This would mean the end of the "age of tenured employment," since the university would provide employment only to its internationally-renowned academics. The latter will be joined by casual or contract lecturers who will depend on marketing their courses for their income. In this way, Bundy has been able to spin his announcement of the creation of 20 junior lectureships (13 year contracts) for "previously disadvantaged" population groups as socially responsible.

Nothing sells like "excellence"

The end of apartheid led oppressed and exploited communities to increase their demand for tertiary education, modifying the composition of student bodies in previously segregated institutions. While in principle this has abolished the distinction between "historically black" and "historically white" institutions, in practice such a distinction remains. It is visible in many aspects of academic life, including staff composition (which at universities like Wits, Natal, UCT and Afrikaans-speaking institutions is still predominantly white), curricula, support programmes and entrance requirements. Black students remain overwhelmingly the target of academic exclusions due to outstanding debts and the inability to pay admission fees. According to the Department of Education, while black students will comprise 73 percent of all university enrolments in 2001, the number of students in need of financial aid also will double by 2010.

Given the rapid increase in the number of students in financial need, the annual increase in government funding for tertiary education between 1995 and 1998 of approximately 9 percent was in fact a decrease in real terms. Then Minister of Education Sibusiso Bhengu underscored the point: "higher education has to be paid by the recipients and not by the state."

As confirmed in the government's 1999 Budget Review, the emphasis on promoting "technological education and training" has meant that state subsidies for institutions with a stronger humanities and social science component have been slashed. The subsidy for Wits has declined by nearly one third in the past five years.

While enrolments at the 21 universities declined by 6 percent between 1997 and 1998, student numbers at the 15 "technikons," which are more oriented to techno-professional skills, rose by 20 percent over the same period. In 1988, 272,445 students enroled at universities and 56,815 registered for technikons. Ten years later these figures were 351,692 and 250,244 respectively.

Fight back

Resistance at Wits, as elsewhere, has been led by the 100,000 strong National Education Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU) until now. NEHAWU is facing the loss of 600 members and plans industrial action in response to the retrenchments. The decisive challenge will be to build a united movement among all university constituencies.

Yet staff members are confused and divided. The progressive-sounding rhetoric of the restructuring is coupled with opportunities offered by the new corporate university to a minority of them. The university administration is able to present restructuring as inevitable. These processes have greatly moderated the opposition of this constituency. Student politics also is weakened by defeats suffered by previous movements, and movements have been contained through a variety of tactics that include student expulsions, criminal charges and police actions. As recent episodes such as the seven-month strike at Mexico City's Autonomous University (UNAM) and the occupations at John's Hopkins University have shown, the unity of all university constituencies is crucial to raise broader popular support for struggles against the marketization and privatization of public education.

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