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Growing pains at UKZN

When I began studying, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) had just opened its doors under this new name. The politically correct called this a ‘merger”.

It was, actually, an adoption — the reluctant addition of the University of Durban-Westville into the University of Natal family. Noble intentions were behind all institutional mergers across South Africa, which were supposed to ‘increase access to resources” in higher education.

I was just glad they didn’t rename it Eastern Seaboard University, which sounded like a surfing school. A few degrees later, I am confident I have earned reputable pieces of paper. And that’s it — isn’t it?

The necessary condition of a good service provider is that is gives you what you pay for — a quality product.

Wait — what’s that? Did I let slip some of the new post-merger lingo? Are the bastions of knowledge creation being reduced to mere ‘service providers”? I think so.

I endearingly refer to our department as ‘the corridors of knowledge”. But, as lecturers overheard this, I was reminded that the university is now run like a business — ‘corridors of capitalism” (and mistrust) would be more apt.

The agony of dealing with bureaucratic red tape is rarely suffered by us students. This is background stuff, which students discover only when their lecturers cathartically complain about the psychological hell of endless middle-management and quality-reducing budget cuts.

For the average Joe on campus, who started in 2004 at UKZN, he could carry on sleeping on the library lawns, blissfully unaware of his institution’s internal madness.

But Joe may have had a rude awakening if, like some of his friends, he was told in his second year that future courses would now be split between the Pietermaritzburg and Durban campuses, or courses that once had tutors could no longer afford them.

This was not the package Joe signed up for when he enrolled. But such is the nature of adoptions; he is told that the family system must now adjust and change some rules of functioning — all for the greater good, of course.

It was only when Professor Nithaya Chetty put academic freedom on the agenda that the infant reputation of UKZN started being smeared/exposed. Phrases such as ‘authoritarian
leaders”, ‘eradicating conservative elements” (read: fire more white people) and ‘Africanisation” (read: hire more black people) were being used. Joe awoke to the realisation that something was amiss in the state of UKZN’s management.

I started becoming nervous that unless someone at the University of Cape Town or Wits did something royally stupid, UKZN would unwillingly hog the media spotlight for too long, and perception would start becoming an unpleasant reality when UKZN graduates started looking for jobs and employers looked at our degrees with suspicion.

Despite this, on the ground we got excellent quality teaching by dedicated, albeit exasperated, academics.

Depending on what you focus on — the university’s print or online newsletters, research output, staff and student achievements, international relations, the media, corridor complaints, ‘institutional culture” findings or official communiqués — UKZN’s growing pains are still being assessed and treated.

Hopefully, teaching, learning, researching and managing will all come together in a way that ensures a sterling reputation.

Suntosh Pillay is completing his master’s thesis at UKZN Pietermaritzburg, while working as an intern clinical psychologist. He writes independently

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