/ 16 September 2008

Untangling the merger mess

Failed universities mergers are being examined for possible solutions, according to ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe.

Mantashe said last week that reversing the mergers was not an option, but the ruling party would like to assess the performance of the merged institutions.

He said that discussions with ”comrades within the Department of Education” also include splitting the education ministry in two. One new ministry would have responsibility for primary and secondary education, the other for higher education.

”No, we are not saying that universities should de-merge. What the ANC is talking about is that there should be a review of some mergers,” he said.

Last week Mantashe and Unisa Vice-Chancellor Barney Pityana were keynote speakers at the University of Johannesburg’s Platform for Public Deliberation.

University mergers were first proposed in 2001 and implemented in 2003.

So far the exercise has cost more than R3-billion and there are questions about its success.

Pityana says the problems have mainly arisen because of the manner in which the mergers were conducted, and the lack of sufficient funding.

”The merger programme has not been a wholesale failure. All the merged universities have tried very hard to make a success of the merger. I can think of UKZN, Unisa and the UJ as successful mergers. I cannot speak confidently about other mergers.

”My concern about talks of de-mergers, however, arises from the realisation that mergers have been very demanding of institutions. A new round of de-merging may be very difficult to implement, except in selected cases,” said Pityana.

The following institutions are likely to be on the review list:

  • University of Limpopo was formed from the former University of the North in Polokwane and Medunsa in Ga-Rankuwa. The merger has been criticised for lack of compatibility between the two institutions and the distance between the campuses. Recently academics and general staff at the university called for it to be reversed. The university SRC says the two campuses run separately.
  • Tshwane University of Technology is South Africa’s second-biggest university after Unisa. It serves about 60 000 students across nine campuses of the former Pretoria, Northern Gauteng and North West technikons.
  • The 2007 quality audit of the Council on Higher Education criticised the faculty-based campus policy. This means that students may not be able to study at their nearest facility, instead having to travel long distances to the campus that offers their course and incurring additional expenses. Another major issue arising from the merger is the severe tension and a resultant breakdown in communications between the central and local student representative councils.

  • Walter Sisulu University is spread over a huge area, including Mthatha, East London, Butterworth and Queenstown. It was formed by the merger of the Eastern Cape Technikon, Border Technikon and the University of the Transkei. Students went on strike in 2006 because of confusion over new fee structures at the merged institution. Former SRC president Mbulelo Mandlana said: ”The academic programme is jumbled and is making life difficult for students.”
  • North West University (NWU) came from the merger of Potchefstroom University of Christian Higher Education and the University of Bophuthatswana. Pityana said the new institution is unmanageable. Effectively there are still two separate universities. South African Union of Students’ chairperson Lucky Phosa said the Mafikeng campus remains isolated four years after the merger and student support services are a major issue. ”The Vaal and Potchefstroom campus still get preferential treatment in terms of student support. I don’t think the merger is bridging the gap between the two merged institutions.”
  • South African Student Congress general secretary Magasela Mzobe is critical of the situation: ”We feel that through the mergers the government has failed in its distribution of access to higher education. It is important that we own up to our mistakes and stop blaming apartheid for everything going wrong. Frankly speaking, the government made a serious mistake but we welcome that it has finally listened to what we have been complaining about.”

    Last week former national education minister Kader Asmal, who pioneered the mergers, said: ”If the ANC wants the mergers to be discussed they need to do so with the current and previous ministers. I don’t think it will be appropriate for me to respond— Anyway the current education minister is in the ANC’s national executive committee and I believe all questions should be directed to her.”

    Education Minister Naledi Pandor was not available for comment at time of going to print.