Education under the axe

Major slashes to humanities courses at Unisa are in the pipeline, and job losses are sure to result.

But, as with Unisa management’s recent and controversial downgrading of some academic posts (see accompanying story), academics say they have scarcely been consulted and remain in the dark about the future of their jobs and the courses they teach.

Last month Unisa vice-principal Rita Maré wrote to all five Unisa colleges (formerly called faculties), highlighting undergraduate modules with fewer than 20 enrolments each. She asked the colleges to report by Thursday this week that these modules will be abolished or, if not, to provide ‘a complete substantiation per module”.

The Mail & Guardian has seen figures Maré supplied to the colleges showing that the humanities face by far the heaviest cuts. In the human sciences college, 30% of undergraduate modules have fewer than 20 enrolments each this year. They include African languages, visual arts, community health, psychology, Italian, Russian and Modern Hebrew.

Also facing the axe are several modules offered as part of the national diploma in education, which is intended to upgrade under-qualified schoolteachers. Modules include teaching and learning maths, introducing economic sciences, career guidance and learning skills, and introducing management sciences.

Unisa academics are speculating about which departments will lose posts. Asked to provide details of such losses, Unisa spokesperson Doreen Gough told the M&G: ‘This is confidential.”

However, Unisa vice-chancellor Barney Pityana told the university’s internal newsletter, e-news, last month: ‘The changes we are proposing will mean some loss of jobs.”

‘The programme and qualification mix is just too comprehensive, too broad,” he said, and ‘we have too few students enrolling in too many of our courses ... Colleagues are justified in raising concerns about their future: after all, it’s their jobs.”

Since merging with the former Technikon SA in 2004, Unisa has had about 230 000 students per year—nearly a third of South Africa’s tertiary students—and 1 400 academic staff. About a third of all undergraduate modules offered are in the humanities, accounting for 27% of registrations.

A senior Unisa humanities professor, who asked not to be named, described the proposed cuts as ‘a disastrous move that will erode the substantial contribution our very strong college of humanities makes to education in South Africa”. He said his own department faces ‘a grim future—it’s imperilled: many of us are near retirement, and other very good academics have left through sheer demoralisation. We’re failing to replace them; I don’t know anyone who’d want a post at Unisa right now.”

‘There’s extreme insecurity and uncertainty among staff,” said another senior academic, who bitterly lamented lack of communication from management. He referred to Unisa’s ‘absolute administrative dysfunctionality ... We’re supposed to plan for the next semester and prepare study materials for next year. How am I supposed to do this if I don’t know if I’ll be around?”

Another commented that ‘staff don’t know what’s happening. There’s been no communication: departments have simply had cuts imposed on them according to arbitrary measures, not according to academic principles. There’s been no formal engagement with academics.”

Gough said the moves are part of a ‘rationalisation process for obvious reasons”. ‘It goes without saying that where there are few students requiring full-time staff and resources at the university, a serious self-critical examination should take place, because this is not financially viable. If our market doesn’t require these courses, funds and resources should be directed to where they’re most needed.”

But she insisted that ‘Unisa’s financial situation is stable” and that ‘the intention is to keep it so”.

On the future of African languages at Unisa, Pityana told e-news that ‘they had their heyday. But we have a large department with many different languages, who quite frankly operate and function the way they have always done. They no longer publish, they don’t teach because they don’t have students, but they sit, and there is so much to do.”

A senior member of the department said she had signed an agreement not to speak to the media. However, Gough said steps to address problems in the department need not involve ‘the scrapping of a language from the curriculum or retrenchment, but revising the presentation of the course and stronger marketing”.

John Higgins, professor of English at the University of Cape Town, linked the Unisa moves with national policy on higher education. ‘One of the key problems is the emphasis on science and technology at the expense of the humanities. The blind spot concerns what the humanities train people in, namely advanced literacy—the ability to deal with information, interpret it, communicate it.

‘One of South Africa’s challenges as an emerging economy is in relation to globalisation. That involves being able to deal with vast amounts of information. This forms the substance of business and government; without these skills you can’t make an economy work.”

Pointing to the vital importance of university language departments, Higgins said that even businesses ‘recognise that the problems of communications between cultures are paramount”.

‘Equally, it’s widely recognised that you can’t isolate science and technology from culture. HIV/Aids is a medical problem, but it’s also a complex cultural problem involving education about it and how you access and interpret information about it.”

Gough said the future of modules and jobs will be decided by November this year.

‘Downgraded’ Unisa staff - Part II

Angry Unisa staff who complained last month that the university’s management had unilaterally downgraded their posts may soon have their grievance redressed.

Negotiations are under way between management and the Academic and Professional Staff Association (Apsa) to find a solution.

The Mail & Guardian reported last month that staff had received letters supposedly formalising their placement in the merged institution, only to find they were being asked to sign their acceptance of apparently downgraded posts. It was unclear whether acceptance of the offer would change their remuneration.

It was also uncertain what would happen to staff who declined to accept. Unisa’s answers to the M&G suggested such staff would have to reapply for their jobs.

On the day of the M&G report, management sent a second letter to staff, saying ‘it has transpired that more background information to the placement process is required”. It added: ‘You are now requested to ignore the job grade in your letter.” Yet it still asked staff to sign and return the reply slip attached to the original letter.

Apsa has since drawn up an alternative reply slip saying: ‘I object to the downgrading of my academic rank as reflected in the first letter ... and understand [the second letter] to be an implicit nullification of the suggested new post grades as per the first letter ...”

The general secretary of Apsa, Johan Jonker, said this week, ‘Negotiations are at a delicate point, and so I cannot comment in detail. But Apsa is hopeful a solution will be found.”

Unisa spokesperson Doreen Gough said the university remained ‘satisfied with the legality of the placement process”. On the staff union’s alternative reply slip, she said, ‘This matter has been raised with [Apsa] and is being attended to internally.”—David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane