Bawa's baptism of fire

Using the university’s own resources for student loans as it did last year when National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funds ran out will not happen again, Durban University of Technology’s (DUT) vice-chancellor Ahmed Bawa said this week.

“It is just not sustainable for DUT, we won’t be doing that again.”

Bawa was speaking to the Mail & Guardian in the wake of student protests that saw the university forced to close its doors on July 25, saying students and staff had been intimidated and classes disrupted by the protesters.

The students’ demands included financial aid, better campus security and branded condoms and sanitary towels in each student room, among others.

Classes will resume next week after the university obtained a court order that “prohibited the continuation of protests, violence, intimidation of students and staff, damage to university property and the invasion of classes”, it said in a statement this week.

In a baptism of fire, Bawa faced these student upheavals only months after joining the university—an institution whose management meltdowns have forced the national government to intervene twice in five years.

Bawa was inaugurated as vice-chancellor at DUT in March this year in a move university staff hoped would usher in a new era for the institution. His previous position was at the City University of New York, where he was professor of physics.
Before that he was deputy vice-chancellor and principal of the Durban campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

“I always intended to come back [to South Africa] and I knew full well that DUT was having difficult times, student issues going on all the time,” he told the M&G.

A challenge
“I was very enthralled by the challenge of getting DUT to function as a university.”

In his first few months as vice-chancellor he said even times of relaxation were spent “worrying about what’s going on at the university”.

“I have to say that all of this has forced me to think quite hard about the role of universities in society. I am looking through a very different lens at DUT compared to being at the [former] University of Natal or in New York.”

NSFAS had allocated a “substantial” R200-million to DUT for student loans this year and the university now has 8 300 students receiving NSFAS packages, he said.

“Unfortunately, this means that there are currently no extra financial aid funds available for other students for the rest of this year. It seems the demand for student loans is endless.”

The M&G reported last year that DUT was disrupted by student protests then for similar reasons—insufficient funds NSFAS had allocated to the university.

Bawa said he explained to the student representative council (SRC) that the size of NSFAS allocations was beyond the control of the university.

But students treated campus as “the site of struggle”, he told the M&G. As a vice-chancellor all he can do is continue communicating with NSFAS and the department of higher education and try to convince them to change the distribution of resources.

He said vice-chancellors around the country were asked to provide their input during the ministerial review of NSFAS that began last year, but the report has not been released. “We’re eager to see what this report says.”

Short-term goals
In the short term, Bawa’s aim for the university is to achieve much-needed stability, “and I’m going to work on this with the help of students, staff, and the department [of higher education]”, he said.

Bawa is himself from KwaZulu-Natal, growing up in Seven Oaks near Greytown in the midlands. He holds an MSc degree from the former University of Durban-Westville (now part of UKZN) and a PhD from the University of Durham in the United Kingdom.

His long-term goal is to make DUT more student-centred, broaden the curriculum base and expand the university’s research capacity. “I want to make sure that students have a good learning and social experience and that they are growing as individuals.

“We are starting a series of seminars and will be helping students to study abroad We also want to bring in more international students to create diversity.

“We want students to engage with each other across the usual racial and gender lines.”

Another long-term goal involves a “curriculum renewal project”. Bawa said qualifications at DUT and many other universities are traditionally designed to prepare students for the workplace, but it is “extremely important that young people are exposed to the world of ideas and that they are encouraged to be lifelong students”.

“We want to shift the responsibility of learning on to the shoulders of students.”

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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