As we wait for the publication of the white paper on post-school education and training, it is worth asking how much we can expect the new policy document to relieve the funding pressures on universities, especially insofar as they affect academic staffing and lecturer-student ratios.
Probably the most significant development since February last year, when the green paper was released, has been the passing of regulations governing Setas' funding of skills development.
Far from scrapping Setas al-together, as delegates at the ANC's 2007 Polokwane congress demanded, regulations that came into effect on April 1 compel them to redirect skills levy funding towards qualifications offered through further education and training colleges and tertiary institutions.
Although this will relieve some of the funding pressures in higher education it will not address most of the ongoing problems — at the root of which, I would suggest here, is the corporatisation of higher education.
The most recent official data on universities confirms this trend. Between 2005 and 2010 there was a 40% increase in temporary staff, compared with only a 10% increase in permanent staff; and there was an increase in part-time and full-time (or "headcount") student enrolment of more than 20% — from 735 073 to 892 943.
The same data shows that, in the same period, there was only a 15% increase in instruction and research staff, but an increase of more than 50% in senior management staff. Although the student-lecturer ratio the higher education and training department recommends is 20:1, it increased from 24:1 in 2005 to 28:1 in 2010 — excluding Unisa, where the ratio is even higher: 59:1 for the 938 201 students enrolled in 2011.
What this means for first-year students, many of whom will have been subjected to seriously under-resourced and overcrowded township and rural schools, is that they typically sit in lecture halls with 300 to 400 people. They are often taught by temporary or part-time lecturers, and are offered consulting times based on the limited number of hours prescribed in contracts for these staff.
In many instances, lecturers have to share an office where there is often restricted or no access to telephones, computers, internet or printing facilities.
Tutorials are oversubscribed, especially during peak times when tests and exams are looming. Tests and exam papers are marked against incredibly tight deadlines. Before and after exams, the volume of requests, queries and support demanded increases considerably and continues long after the expiry of the contract.
But these lecturers respond because they care about their students or because they hope to make a good impression to secure a renewed contract the next year. Based on anecdotal evidence in South Africa and confirmed in international studies, permanent staff are not spared these workloads and many suffer stress-related health problems.
The level of compensation for temporary lecturers — about R7 500 a month at one institution I know of, for instance — is much less than that demanded as a minimum by workers in the platinum industry during the strikes in the mining belt last year. Lecturers employed on short-term contracts that are rolled over each year share the same insecurities as most university support staff such as cleaners, security and others, many of whom are employed through labour brokers.
The level of unionisation among workers employed by labour brokers and among temporary university lecturers is almost nonexistent. The experience of exploitation and of alienation is the same for temporary lecturers as for labour-brokered support staff. As the official data I have cited confirms, the casualisation of university staff is on the rise — one of the key indicators of the corporatisation of the university.
While there have been large injections of funds into the education system, including through the increased revenue from the Setas, there continue to be huge backlogs in addressing problems of infrastructure and access, about which the green paper is frank. It states that funding has not kept up with the rising costs of provision, with a sharp reduction in the state's contribution compelling institutions to increase student fees.
The paper proposes a 2030 target of four million young people enrolled in further education and training colleges and 1.5-million in universities by 2030.
But achieving these targets will require a drastic reversal in budgetary projections given what the paper calls the "rigidity of the current funding system". Current budgets support planned growth of only 2.8%, yet the expansion of demand within the system is, even now, at 4.6%.
The paper's call for a review of funding to strengthen teaching in universities without reducing research should be supported. But this should include provision for matching funding to address the targets for expansion. This will require the abandonment of the neoliberal paradigm within which current economic policy is framed.
Without such a change universities will come to rely increasingly on temporary staff to deliver courses and to prop up under-staffed departments in universities. This has been the case internationally, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, but increasingly also in European countries, where the corporatisation of the university has been under way for some time.
South African universities have not been immune to this process, as shown in various studies over the past 10 years, including the most recent by the University of the Witwatersrand into conditions of support staff on its campuses.
This follows the trend reported 10 years earlier of a shift to a "managerial" culture in a 2002 study by Eddie Webster and Sarah Mosoetsa based on five higher education institutions. The impact of neoliberal restructuring on university support staff was also reported on in a 2004 national survey by Lucien van der Walt and colleagues.
Yet in the United States there is evidence of mixed results from pursuing efficiency and cost savings by outsourcing support services. In the US experience, results tend to vary depending on the occupational grades of workers.
Although there may be a similar trend in South Africa, where "high value-added tasks" may provide employees with flexible hours, and well-paid consulting and freelance work, this will probably apply only to a minority.
The rest, like their counterparts doing manual and menial work, are likely to be experiencing what these researchers found were declining wages, worsening conditions and benefits, growing job insecurity and no, or increasingly ineffective, trade union representation.
All these authors noted that higher education institutions have responded to the neoliberal macro-economic policy environment either by attempting to transform themselves into "market universities" — through the widespread use of "cost-centering" that has effectively eliminated the cross-subsidisation of important but less popular programmes and courses — or by survivalist strategies of cost cutting and austerity.
There is also increasing evidence of what should have been obvious in the first place: that the erosion of conditions of work and levels of pay for junior and mid-level academic and support staff undermines the mission of higher education to provide quality education.
This is confirmed by research that has consistently found a negative correlation between a shift from full-time to part-time staff and educational quality.
"Higher learning" is not only undermined by this approach to cost cutting, it is also creating its own grave digger by eroding the basis for cutting-edge research and innovation to improve competitiveness. This, as we have all too often heard, is the constant mantra from business, one that is unfortunately repeated in many government economic and social development plans and strategies.
In its 2012 strategy on education and skills, trade union federation Cosatu urged its affiliates to lead the defence of higher education as a public good and a sphere of critical democratic citizenry, and to resist the imposition of commercial and corporate values.
As limited as the reforms proposed in the green paper are — and despite setbacks suffered by Cosatu at the ANC conference in Mangaung with regards to the youth wage subsidy, nationalisation and e-tolling — the rhetorical shift to a "developmental state" could be an opportunity for labour to exert pressure on the government to implement policies and plans that invest in social institutions, including education and training.
Given the ongoing recession, which has not shown any signs of abating since its onset in 2007-2008, labour should demand "quantitative easing with a difference": a massive injection of public expenditure that invests in society as a whole, instead of in the tiny elite that has so far benefited through wage subsidies in the form of learnerships, tenders, outsourcing, privatisation and other neoliberal measures.
Such a policy could offer the economic influx to lift the ships lying stranded in the wasteland of what is now fashionably referred to as the triple challenge of unemployment, inequality and poverty. Higher education, which has suffered a decline in state funding, should be prioritised as a vital and powerful means to promote social transformation.