UKZN's crucible of poor decisions

Graphic: John McCann

Graphic: John McCann

In 2004, the universities of Natal and Durban-Westville merged to form the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), with Professor Malegapuru Makgoba as vice-chancellor of the new ­institution.

Merging universities was an easy option for the government during Kader Asmal’s education ministry (1999 to 2004). Differentiation – for instance, classifying some universities as research-intensive and others as mainly teaching institutions – would have required a great deal of political persuasion and lasting acrimony.

Mergers were costly but, once decreed, the details could be left to the institutions concerned.
In short, they were an expedient solution in many ways, adroitly transferring political tensions to the newly created universities.

Education analyst Patrick Fish summed up the history of South African university mergers as “neither transparent nor carried out for any of the reasons that usually lie behind a merger”; they failed to achieve efficiencies or financial economies of scale and probably cost the taxpayer because no significant part of a partially rotten system was closed down.

“[Government] sought,” Fish wrote in the Mail & Guardian, “to transform the sector out of the inequalities of the past and in the process forgot to transform the sector into anything” (“As if it never happened”, M&G, October 10 2009).

This is an excellent analysis and sum­mary, but it ignores the specific experience of UKZN. There, “anything” turned out to be a process of social engineering and political agendas.

Wild claims
Many made wild claims about the cost and other efficiencies of large educational institutions without any empirical evidence. On the contrary, in the view of John Aitchison, UKZN emeritus professor of adult education, “it is abundantly clear that the best universities in the world are all of small to moderate size [certainly less than 20?000 students]”, he wrote in 2003. The optimum size for any academic unit was 25 staff and certainly no more than 50.

Distorted geographic perceptions were also employed freely; and the most common error was to regard the city of Pietermaritzburg as part of the Durban metropolitan region.

The matter of travelling about 80km to meetings and the attendant cost in time, money and nervous energy was regarded as of no consequence. The fact that Pietermaritzburg’s campus functioned well was also seen as unacceptable, an indication of paranoia at high levels, evidenced – and exacerbated – by the somewhat naive suggestions that Pietermaritzburg should adopt a different governance structure.

During 2003, there was unofficial discussion about the possibility of postponing the merger to allow for further thought and planning. There was a precedent for this in the arrangement between the then Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education and the University of the North West (formerly the University of Bophuthatswana), in which five years was allowed for the two universities to operate as branches under a broad institutional umbrella.

Why this was not permitted in KwaZulu-Natal was never explained. Jay Naidoo, a minister in Nelson Mandela’s government, argued that the admirable Reconstruction and Development Plan required at least a year for its own developmental planning. This he was denied because, in his assessment, politicians think in the short term, as he wrote in his 2010 autobiography, Fighting for Justice.

But the same should not have been true of two universities full of thinking people. There was at UKZN a palpable desire to destroy what had existed before, regardless of its quality or functionality – the destructive “Zim­babwe syndrome”, which trusts that from the ashes will emerge, via some African miracle, a new institution. The new authority, basking in the attractions of quantification (research output) and reporting (academic line managers), was all too evident.

Exceeding legitimate regulation
Richard Pithouse, a UKZN academic staff member in this period, noted in 2009 a mania for measurement and surveillance entirely at odds with “the intellectual autonomy of the scholar affirmed and defended by the collegial governance of the university”. It far exceeded the legitimate regulation of universities to ensure that they play a necessary role in the development of a democratic society, entering the realm of internal control, an entirely different agenda at odds with the purpose of a university.

Sheer inefficiency typified the merged university and frustrated the most basic of day-to-day activities. Centralisation and a lack of proper management were joined by a complete authority of control on the part of some administrative offices such as the central buying office, which usurped the roles of locally based staff and destroyed the supportive roles they had played. Arbitrary and summary instructions on purchasing were issued. Horror stories were legion, especially regarding order numbers that now officially took three weeks to issue as opposed to the previous maximum of three hours.

One of the most contentious aspects of big-picture executive managerialism involved the salaries and performance bonuses paid to the elite now in charge. The millionaire executive management elite starkly contrasted with lecturer and professorial salaries, ranging between R100?000 and R400?000.

A particularly intriguing and revealing wage gap was that between the vice-chancellor and the lowest-paid worker at UKZN. By 2006, this had climbed to a factor of 26 times, a margin unheard of in the bad old days of colonialism and apartheid.

At the time, Tony Bruton and Sue Higgins-Opitz, for the National Tertiary Education Staff Union, put average 2004 salaries at R828?000 for a deputy vice-chancellor and R400?000 for a top professor.

They also showed pay packages and pay increases at the universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand to be far more modest than those of UKZN’s.

According to another study, published in 2006, in the late 1980s the differential between vice-chancellors and senior lecturers was a mere 2:1. By 2000 it had reached 4.5:1.

So the salary arrangements of the past looked positively benign by contrast – although the post-1994 UKZN changes in this area were admittedly a reflection of the situation in the country as a whole.

Financial stringency
These were the sorts of differentials increasingly seen in the private sector, but they were especially inappropriate to an educational institution. Apart from issues of equity and collegiality, they were paid out in a context of supposed financial stringency and from public funds.

The pertinent question was asked how performance at executive level in a university could be measured with any accuracy. Perhaps this is why the whole exercise was clouded in secrecy.

Nithaya Chetty was associate professor of physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal until 2008, and joined the University of Pretoria the following year. Until 2007, Dr Christopher Merrett was director of administration at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus. This is an edited extract from their e-book, The Struggle for the Soul of a South African University: The University of KwaZulu-Natal, Academic Freedom, Corporatisation and Transformation. For more information, go to

See “‘Abuse of power’ shackles ­academia”.

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