/ 23 March 2007

Walter Sisulu University fights for survival

‘Another storm is brewing,” says Marcus Balintulo, the new vice-chancellor of Walter Sisulu University (WSU), with a stoic forbearance that three months at the crisis-ridden institution appear to have already tested. He is referring to the staff demand of a 10% salary hike this year, but the comment is an equally apt description of the turbulence he faces in trying to ensure the university’s overall survival.

Yet, at the beginning of his interview with the Mail & Guardian, one personal comment he makes suggests that this is a man inspired by examples of those who wrest success from adversity. Apologising for ‘any incoherence”, he admitted to having spent the early hours of the day watching the opening cere­mony of the Cricket World Cup in the West Indies. His love of cricket developed during his postgraduate studies in England and occurred ‘in a political context, watching Basil d’Oliveira play for Worcestershire and England”. The great D’Oliviera, barred as a coloured from cricketing success in apartheid South Africa, found huge success overseas.

Balintulo will need all that kind of inspiration and more. Since WSU came into being in July 2005 from the merger of the University of Trans­kei, Border Technikon and Eastern Cape Technikon, it has hovered on the brink of financial collapse. It has a budget deficit of more than R70-million and student debt of about R102-million. In addition, financial burdens inherited from the two former technikons are compounded by vastly unequal pay scales across the three units that make up WSU.

Unsurprisingly, then, Balintulo has money on his mind. Born in the Eastern Cape, he speaks with feeling about the layers of deprivation that afflict the region and, inevitably, the institution. ‘WSU services an extremely poor community, and although the state financial aid scheme has escalated since the 1990s to its present R1,5billion, the need is so vast. What do we do when we simply don’t have enough money?”

As a result, ‘the cream of Eastern Cape matriculants go elsewhere”. There is ‘a hierarchy of resource endowment deriving from our history that has a huge impact on the quality of student life and their performances, and that makes student experiences of higher education vastly different. At the Mthatha campus there isn’t even a student centre, for example. Gaps in resources such as infrastructure, libraries, laboratories, computers and so on were supposed to be met by redress funding, but they’re all still with us.”

In addition, the ‘complexity of the WSU merger is unequalled nationally”, he says. The only other three-way merger — Tshwane University of Technology — involved three technikons. WSU, which is composed of one university and two technikons, faces the added difficulty that all three former institutions were historically disadvantaged ‘This is a merger of poverty,” says Balintulo.

He is, however, no stranger to understanding mixtures and trying to make them work.

His work experiences trace patterns of cultural and economic contrasts: he was for several years in the 1990s acting vice-chancellor at the former University of Durban-Westville, and before that held academic posts at universities in the West Indies, Nigeria, the United States and Botswana.

Now, though, he faces one of the greatest challenges in the country’s tertiary terrain: making WSU viable. Last week the university submitted an institutional operating plan to the education department. In part this involves a request for recapitalisation. So how much is WSU hoping to get? ‘Good question,” says Balintulo. Two weeks ago, it looked as though he would get ‘a drop in the ocean” of what WSU needs, but discussions with the department now look more optimistic, he said.

So what about the ‘immediate storms” concerning staff increases? It bodes well for Balintulo that unions now express unusual sympathy for WSU’s overall financial situation. ‘We have to think of the interests of the institution before our own,” Sihle Ngcobo, chairperson of the National Union of Technikon Employees of South Africa, told the M&G. ‘We can’t just blindly pretend that WSU’s finances aren’t happening.”