WSU merger ‘doomed from the start’

2013-09-01 06:00

As pressure mounts on government to intervene in the protracted six-week strike at the Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in Eastern Cape, questions are being raised about the viability of the merger that resulted in the establishment of the institution.

On Tuesday, WSU administrator Professor Lourens van Staden shut down the university and told students to vacate the institution’s premises by no later than 12pm on Wednesday, but later extended the deadline to Friday 5pm after students objected.

The protracted strike centres on a salary increase of 8% to 10%, demanded by the lecturers and administration staff, while management is standing firm on its 4.25% offer.

“It’s a final offer. We can’t go beyond that,” said Angela Church, the university’s spokesperson.

Church also revealed that a breakthrough could be close after parties met on Friday in a meeting chaired by an independent mediator where an agenda was set to be discussed tomorrow.

“It’s a positive sign that the parties are back (at) the negotiation table,” she said.

The merger of Unitra, and the Eastern Cape and Border technikons in 2005 has been bedevilled by problems from the get-go.

Dr Somadoda Fikeni, who served as the university’s council chair, believes WSU was set up to fail from the onset, because it was underfunded by government.

“The principle was good but its application was uneven,” said Fikeni, describing the situation of the WSU as “tragic”.

He said compounded problems prior to the merger were not addressed.

Unitra, when it joined the merger, was on the brink of being closed down by former education minister Kader Asmal.

“By the time Unitra went into the merger it was seriously bruised. There was an exodus of highly qualified lecturers. Unitra was merged while crawling on its knees.

“WSU started on a deficit and was running on overdraft for some time. At one point it had about 27 000 students while it had a subsidy of only 18 000 students, so it started on the back foot,” he said.

Fekeni said if issues such as lack of resources and infrastructure, lack of quality and skilled lecturers are not addressed, the university might as well shut its doors.

Meanwhile, higher education director-general Gwebinkundla Qonde said in a statement the university’s salary expenditure was unusually high – at 75% of income – while the national payroll norm for universities was between 55% and 62%.

“This is a consequence of deliberate misappropriation of funds by members of management, following the merger in 2005. When we intervened in 2011, personnel costs constituted 80% of the operational income,” he was quoted as saying in Mail & Guardian on Thursday.

Premier Noxolo Kiviet’s spokesperson Mxolisi Spondo said stakeholders from WSU submitted a petition to government with a number of demands including the need for the province to hold a summit to discuss the university’s crisis and the possibility of a demerger.

Church said the university was feeling the effects of “a complicated and failed merger”, but efforts were being made to turn it around because “a demerger is not an option”.

She further said: “The ministry is not in favour of a demerger. A lot of money was invested in this and it cannot be allowed to fall apart. But there is no question we are dealing with a failed merger.”

Church said underfunding was one of the biggest causes of the failed merger, forcing the institution to “(borrow) money left, right and centre”.

National Education Health and Allied Workers Union provincial secretary Xolani Malamlela said the workers would only reconsider their demands if WSU came up with a better offer.

Some students defied the directive by the administrator, Professor Van Staden, to vacate the premises by 5pm on Friday while a handful was seen carrying their bags and heading home.

At least 16 protesting students were arrested and a dozen injured this week during violent clashes with the police.

Wandile Mboyana, a first-year marketing student at the Potsdam campus in East London, said he regrets the day he set foot on the WSU campus.

The fourth-year analytical chemistry student said: “I am hurt because it means I won’t be able to finish my qualification on time. It seems our right to education is not a priority to this department and WSU.”

Student Representative Council academic officer Raphael Biata said as students they were “prepared to die for our education” and would not be leaving until they were taught.

“What is worse is when government and management pretend they have everything under control when they don’t.

“If the merger is the problem, they must do away with it,” he said.

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