Progress despite hurdles

The North-West University officially came into being on January 1 2004, as a merger between the former University of the North West in Mafikeng and the former Potchefstroom University, and included the incorporation of staff and students of the Sebokeng campus of Vista.

It consists of an institutional (‘head”) office, and three campuses — Mafikeng, Potchefstroom and Vaal Triangle. In 2008 the NWU was the fourth-largest university in the country by head count. Of the total of 47 000 students, 27 000 were contact students (7 000 at Mafikeng, 16 500 at Potch and 3 500 at Vaal Triangle) and 20 000 were off-campus students (mainly teachers improving their qualifications). Of the enrolled students, 64% were black and 36% white.

Merger strategy
Although other merged institutions started off by focusing on transformation, changing symbols and logos and moving faculties, we decided to stabilise and improve our core business — mainly teaching and research — and then to focus on transformation.

We went this route because during mergers people become uncertain about their jobs and they stop being productive and, in some cases, leave, while students vote with their feet if quality deteriorates. Our strategy was to maintain and improve our core business, while pursuing sustainable transformation. This emphasised a balance between efficiency and experience on the one hand and equity and development on the other.

The process aimed to maintain a balance between the essential unity of the new university and the necessary diversity of its campuses, programmes and campus cultures. In terms of equity among campuses, we decided that the campuses did not have to be the same but we worked on upgrading facilities to offer students a quality experience: a student centre was built at the Mafikeng campus and we are in the process of planning one for the Vaal campus. Furthermore, our residences are being built to the same specifications.

Major challenges
A first challenge was resistance to change and low levels of trust on all campuses. Constituencies were managed through regular communication and implementing a process of redress and quality improvement.

Notwithstanding this, some staff on the Mafikeng campus made allegations of ‘Potchification”, arguing that policies and procedures from the previous Potchefstroom University were forced on the Mafikeng campus.

This was countered by ensuring that all three campuses had equal input into new policies and procedures. But with the better resourced Potch campus, theirs was often the only input and ‘Potchification” only disappeared late in the merger.

The second challenge was to agree on a management model, given the new university’s multicampus nature, the geographical distances between campuses and the campuses’ various historical backgrounds.

A unitary, multicampus institution was established with an institutional (‘head”) office in Potchefstroom (headed by the vice-chancellor) and three equal campuses — each headed by a rector accountable to the vice-chancellor for everything happening on that campus. In this unitary multi-campus model a number of functions were centralised (such as finances, human resources and IT) at the institutional office and overseen by an institutional management (of which the campus rectors are part). In essence, the management model is one used successfully by many companies.

A third set of challenges involved the name, seat and language. A compromise was the name ‘North-West University”, with its seat in Potchefstroom. We decided to opt for functional multilingualism — with Afrikaans, English and Setswana being used.

At the Potchefstroom campus education students in the foundation phase receive their lectures in Setswana. In other programmes where Afrikaans is used there is simultaneous translation into English (through earphones).

Therefore, black and white students in the same class can work in an integrated way without losing Afrikaans as a functional language. The NWU also has a language ombudsman, with whom staff and students who believe that their language rights have been violated can lodge complaints.

Because of continued student unrest on the Mafikeng campus in 2008, then-minister of education Naledi Pandor unilaterally decided to appoint a task team to ‘investigate the affairs of the NWU”, including the merger objectives.

Although the council and management objected to this, full cooperation was given and the council gave its feedback on the report of the task
team to the ministry in March 2009.

The essence of the feedback was that although the NWU took some of the findings of the report seriously (such as better communication with stakeholders), it rejected other findings (such as that the Mafikeng management be ‘redeployed”), as well as the fact that none of the findings based on allegations made by some staff and students (about blacks being ‘guests” on the Potchefstroom campus and Mafikeng being ‘too black”) were ever verified.

Merger-incorporation achievements

  • The new statute was implemented, including all integrated structures, as well as more than 40 new institutional policies (including admission requirements and basic conditions of service); and
  • A vision, values and mission statement and a university anthem in three languages were finalised. A comparison between 2004 and 2008 shows the following:
  • The undergraduate pass rate increased from 75.2% to 81.2%;
  • Total degrees increased by 21.7% to 12 337;
  • PhDs awarded rose by 13% to 100; and
  • The number of published article equivalents increased by 85% to 509. External national recognition received by the NWU includes:
  • For the past three years it has been the winner of the national PricewaterhouseCoopers competition as best-governed university in South Africa;
  • In the National Innovation Fund competition of the department of science and technology, it was named as the most technologically innovative higher education institution in 2008; and
  • In 2008 it was recognised by the Pan-South African Language Board as the university that had done most for multilingualism and nation-building.

The academic programme alignment process across the three campuses is almost complete. By 2012 we don’t want any employer to need to ask from which campus a potential employee graduated — the quality should be the same and speak for itself.

Early in the merger we set up a human rights commission, made up of senior staff and chaired by senior counsel advocate Solly Sithole. Any student or staff member who feels that his or her human rights have been violated can approach this body.

The commission investigates and makes recommendations to management or the council, based on the Bill of Rights. Although 35% of our total permanent staff of 2 600 is African, our target is to reach 40% in two years and 50% by 2015.

We have strong capacity-building programmes and budgets for recruiting more black staff. Today the NWU is more than the sum of its parts and each of the campuses has gained from the merger incorporation.

The NWU’s mission to become a balanced teaching, learning and research university is in sight. It is positioning itself strategically in terms of its innovation and diversity.

Theuns Eloff is vice-chancellor of North-West University

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