Mergers: where are we now?

In 2002 the government announced the merger of the University of Port Elizabeth with the local campus of Vista University and with the Port Elizabeth Technikon to form the new Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). This merger formed part of a process aimed at establishing a reconfigured higher education institutional landscape.

Did the various mergers and incorporations make sense?

In some cases yes, but in other cases no. It begs belief that we now have a general university and a university of technology in Bloemfontein, which hardly qualifies as an industrial hub, and yet Johannesburg, our country’s prime business and industry hub, does not have a designated university of technology.

In other cases the effects of geographical distance on establishing and sustaining cohesive and integrated new institutions seem to have been grossly underestimated.

It would have made far more sense to have merged Border Technikon, outside East London, with the reconfigured University of Fort Hare, which was to incorporate Rhodes University’s East London Campus anyway, than merge it with the University of Transkei in Mthatha.

The merger between the University of the North and Medunsa to form a new University of Limpopo also strains logic to the extreme.

But some of the other mergers make a lot of sense, such as NMMU, Natal Technikon and ML Sultan Technikon, now Durban University of Technology (although why Mangosuthu University of Technology was not included in this new institution remains a mystery), the creation of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the unbundling of the former Vista University.

The ones involved in mergers in a few cases spent fruitless months deciding on what they should do. Others decided that the odds were stacked against them and simply got on with the job as quickly as possible.

For the NMMU, and for other comprehensive universities, one of the major frustrations has been that no one could say what kind of an institution this would end up being.

The managerial and operational challenges facing merging institutions varied from the sublime to the ridiculous. The greatest challenge for the NMMU undoubtedly lay in merging three sets of staff structures and harmonising three sets of conditions of employment within the strict confines of the Labour Relations Act. On the human side the mergers were difficult, if not downright horrible, exercises to manage.

People and their careers were affected in many different ways — some were able to continue their careers relatively uninterrupted, others had to make career switches, others had to cope with prospects of diminished career advancement and, of course, some had to face the inevitability of retrenchment. These factors caused great personal tension and distress, as well as severe institutional trauma, negatively affecting work performance.

Many merging institutions, for example, experienced a drop in research output, leaving them at a distinct disadvantage to the so-called ‘untouchables” (such as UCT and Wits).

Merging institutions, including NMMU, tried their utmost to avoid the wholesale retrenchment of staff. Staff reduction was managed mainly through natural attrition — voluntary exit strategies, including early retirement options.

About 15 staff members had to be retrenched after all other avenues and options had failed. But a fair number of staff members, probably about 120 in total, made use of voluntary severance opportunities.

Were merging institutions supported adequately by government? Yes and no.

Yes in the sense that the department of education set up a merger unit, which published a useful set of merger guidelines and visited institutions.

Government set aside funds earmarked for assisting merging institutions in a variety of ways. NMMU, for example, applied for and received funds for installing a new integrated telephone system for its various campuses, for integrating the IT systems of its merging institutions and, in part, for covering some of the costs associated with severance packages for staff.

But frustrations arose with the extreme bureaucracy with which the department approached applications for payouts and the long delays experienced in such payouts being made.

Merging institutions also felt that government had no inkling of the institutional turbulence and turmoil that was occurring on the ground and did little to alleviate the plight of institutions in this regard.

Should mergers such as the one that gave rise to NMMU be undone?

Even if some of the mergers make no sense, the answer is no. At this stage, such a step could mean the end for some institutions, which would not survive another period of such intense institutional turbulence.

What is needed now is for all the merging institutions to have a period of institutional consolidation and to receive more designated funding to cope with the many financial challenges brought about by the mergers.

Rolf Stumpf is former vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and an education consultant

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