/ 8 August 2013

Wits academics scathing on governance

A new survey shows that the majority of academics at Wits University feel the institution is poorly governed.
A new survey shows that the majority of academics at Wits University feel the institution is poorly governed. (M&G)

The full extent of challenges facing University of the Witwatersrand's new vice-chancellor, Adam Habib, are apparent in a new survey suggesting the majority of academics think the institution is poorly governed.

The Academic Staff Association of Wits University surveyed 400 lecturers – about a third of the academic staff – for a report, now published, titled "Whither Wits?"

More than 60% of those surveyed expressed dissatisfaction about governance at Wits. The report suggests this unhappiness derives from "management's distance from and inability to hear both staff and student concerns".

"The results of the 2013 survey points to an institution in a complex crisis that threatens the success of the academic project and the future of the university," the report says.

Responses "indicate widespread concern with critical aspects of the university", particularly conditions of employment, research and teaching resources, governance and management, and the effectiveness of support services.

Habib officially took over from the retired Loyiso Nongxa in June this year, and the university also has a new council. 

"The new management leadership and that of council needs, by word and deed, to convince all internal stakeholders, including academics, that it can and will listen to the concerns that have been expressed over recent years," says the report.

Habib said that because Wits was now in the "midst of a turnaround strategy under new leadership", the staff association's report was "dated". 

"We are optimistic that the new strategy will mark a significant turnaround for Wits in the near future. Senate and council approved the turnaround strategy."

The strategy included "increasing research publications, investing in staff, attracting the best academics and securing and prioritising funding", Habib said. 

Only 5.1% of the university's academics are satisfied with their salaries, according to the survey. Following an unprecedented salary strike by academics last year, Wits appointed a task team to consider benchmarking salaries against those at six of the country's leading universities. 

"The need to address salaries at Wits is pressing," the report says. "These need to be competitive in relation to the higher-education sector."

Said Habib: "I have already agreed with the three key unions that Wits must pay the best. The question is: How do we get there? A task team has been formed."

Lecturers are also grappling with heavy workloads, an area in which the survey found a 46% dissatisfaction level. This has "strategic implications in regard to Wits retaining its position as a research-intensive university", the report suggests. "Teaching excellence is compromised by a lack of quality venues, particularly for large classes."

Habib said the student-staff ratio was "a national challenge, and one that Wits [also] faces". But the turnaround strategy addressed this issue in several ways: "One of these is the appointment of 30 new senior academics at the A-rated level [the highest academic rating by the National Research Foundation] or equivalent. We will be actively recruiting in the coming months."

Habib challenged the union to carry out a similar survey in a few months. "It would be interesting to determine if the turnaround strategy has worked and if academics feel the environment has changed significantly."