NWU trapped in an ‘iron cage’ that stifles transformation

Students at the Potchefstroom campus of North West University. (Delwyn Verasamy, MG)

Students at the Potchefstroom campus of North West University. (Delwyn Verasamy, MG)

A new independent report contradicts North West University’s recently published claim that it has bridged its racial divisions and addressed historical inequalities.

“Present management structures and practices are not fully conducive to achieving transformation goals [and] … racial and gender imbalances persist in the composition of student and academic staff bodies,” the 10-year review, which NWU commissioned, says.

This report follows NWU’s own review which was presented to the panel in December, whose findings on campus divisions differ substantially. Both reviews assess the extent to which NWU has met the many targets it set in 2004, when the government merged the formerly white, Afrikaans-medium Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education and Mafikeng’s former University of Bophuthatswana.

The independent panel comprised Frans van Vught (European Commission), Nico Cloete (Centre for Higher Education Transformation), Lynn Meek (University of Melbourne, Australia), Barney Pityana (formerly vice-chancellor of Unisa), Torben Kornbech Rasmussen (formerly Copenhagen University, Denmark), Mala Singh (Rhodes University) and Ian Bunting (University of Cape Town).

NWU now has 55 000 ­students across three campuses in Potchefstroom, Mafikeng and the Vaal Triangle. One of the merger objectives was “overcoming the apartheid-induced divide between a historically white and historically black institution”.

NWU’s internal review said: “[In]terms of organisation unity and the management model, the racial divide has been bridged.”

But the independent review says NWU’s management model “placed the university in an ‘iron cage’ that restricted transformation and the building of a united university culture and single university brand”.

One interviewee said the “present structure has left Mafikeng as very much a Bantustan university”.

The independent panel finds notable inequalities among the campuses in the numbers of senior academic staff.
In 2012 the Potchefstroom campus had 265 professors and associate professors (32% of its total ­permanent academic staff) and Mafikeng 57 (22%).

Staff and students say NWU’s language policy “has led to two demo­graphically distinct campuses”. Afrikaans is the language of instruction at Potchefstroom and English at Mafikeng.

“In 2012, Potchefstroom’s contact student population was 75% white and 25% black,” the review says. But, excluding distance-education students, Mafikeng’s white students made up 1% and Vaal Triangle’s 23%.

“The Potchefstroom campus appeared to the panel to be the most culturally homogeneous and least open to external social and political influences of the three campuses.”

“A degree of cultural isolation may have contributed to the negative press that the university’s Potchefstroom campus received recently concerning alleged right-wing extremist symbolism during a student orientation ceremony.”

The two reviews differ too on NWU’s overall headcount progress towards another merger objective: promoting “a more equitable staff and student body”.

The internal report said this had been achieved. But the independent report states that the “racial and gender compositions of NWU’s permanent academic plus support staff fell well short of those of the country”.

Student success shows ­discrepancies as well. In the same year “graduation numbers for the higher degrees [were] dominated by whites” and female students “held lower proportions of masters [and doctoral] level enrolments”.

However, the independent report has high praise for NWU’s 10 years of solid financial stability and huge increases in research outputs.

Assessing the merger as a whole, the report says: “During the panel’s investigations it became apparent that two conceptions of merger were at play. One view ... was that the merger sought to preserve as much of the then status quo as possible, adopting a no-change environment that preserved a centre where Afrikaans interest, language and culture prevailed.

“[Another] was that Potchefstroom was most likely to serve as the engine of the new university, providing strength and consistence that would uplift the other campuses, but only if the disturbance to the Potchefstroom campus was minimal.”

Spokesperson Louis Jacobs said that NWU’s council has referred the report to management for wide consultations “as a starting point towards developing a strategic agenda and plan for the university”.

Under new vice-chancellor Dan Kgwadi, the document will be “important … to establish a fresh vision [and] mission”.

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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