/ 13 March 2015

Self-serving universities have lost the equity plot


I read with wonder the recent article about the huge differences in university academic staff’s remuneration (“Vast varsity pay gap exposed”, January 23). From senior lecturer upwards, academics seem well paid, but from lecturer down, the gap widens enormously.

It was fascinating to learn these differences are detailed in a report by Higher Education South Africa (Hesa), an entity representing the country’s vice-chancellors – “captains of the South African academy”. In effect, the report means these leaders are reporting on themselves.

Aren’t vice-chancellors charged with transforming apartheid’s legacies, including these salary gaps in our higher education system, and especially at the historically white universities? Who is responsible for closing the gaps the report shows, if the vice-chancellors themselves are not paying attention to this as a necessary part of transforming higher education?

I think Hesa’s report is another of its ploys to request additional money for higher education, despite the academy’s own leadership having failed to implement anything much by way of effective transformation.

Consider the following example of gender discrimination and ask this: Why are most women, and African women in particular, left behind by the same “captains” who are charged with transforming the academy and closing the glaring gaps?

I live in the Eastern Cape, which has four universities. Three of them result from mergers that, generally speaking, became formal countrywide institutional realities in January 2004.

In the past few years, at one of these Eastern Cape universities, two leadership positions – each the principal of the university’s two satellite campuses – were advertised at different times.

The offices of the vice-chancellor and the deputy vice-chancellor of academic affairs, as well as the human resources department, managed the appointment process. At the time, the acting principal of one of these campus was, for a while, a white woman professor.

Among the shortlisted candidates for one of the campuses was an African woman with a PhD. She was eventually appointed to the position.

What is interesting is this: when it was clear that she was the preferred candidate, the university’s executive management demoted the title and the position of this campus’s leader to that of campus “director” rather than campus “principal”.

This had serious implications, not only for the salary differences between the two positions, but also for the prestige of the title.

I believe the change was done because:

• The preferred candidate was an African woman;

• The white woman acting as principal was not successful;

• Significantly, no such change was made to the other campus leader’s title and position; and

• A man of a different race to that of the preferred woman is in charge of the other campus now.

That last point leads me to other fascinating university facts. Hesa has subcommittees responsible for several areas, including transformation, teaching and learning.

The chairperson of the subcommittee on transformation is a vice-chancellor. Since his appointment several years ago, data on staff hiring suggests that “black African” men are an endangered species at the university.

More staff in this category than in any other have left the university in recent years. And these days black African lecturers and professors have found racially charged messages written on their office doors.

I agree with the sentiments that Iqbal Survé expressed in the same M&G edition as the salary story was published: there is a lot of “lip service” among the leadership of higher education, especially when it comes to those who were activists in the past (“Iqbal Survé dumps UCT over ‘lip service’?”, January 23).

They have lost the plot and are becoming worse than apartheid’s leaders. Too many universities are places whose true intentions include jobs for pals and retaining the privilege and the power of a few individuals, while making excuses for their lack of transformation and their failure to close the ongoing and unjustifiable pay gaps.

There is, at universities, still a deeply ingrained self-interest and self-maintaining of power.

This is what I believe Hesa genuinely needs to address, rather than producing useless and self-serving reports.

Freedom Maqabane is a resident of Zwide township, eBhayi, Eastern Cape