Research grants to pay student debt

2020-02-17 12:18


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The University of KwaZulu-Natal is desperate to clear its impasse with protesting students, and has now asked academic staff to donate research grant money in an attempt to clear students’ historical debt.

Internal communication leaked to The Witness can reveal that at least one faculty, humanities, is looking at taking this extraordinary step, with the faculty’s deputy vice chancellor, Professor Nhlanhla Mkhize, telling staff he is pledging R50 000.

This comes as the university faces yet more discontent, with its largest union, the University of KwaZulu-Natal Staff Union (Uksu), today beginning a strike at the Westville campus, after the union’s numerous complaints — including staff safety during protests — remain unresolved.

UKZN has been plagued by violent student protests since the start of the month, with students particularly taking issue with difficulties in registering because of historical debt.

The university said at the weekend that the academic programme will resume today after having been suspended for two weeks. The SRC, however, said classes should not resume today as negotiations with university management are still deadlocked.

The latest revelations about Uksu’s unhappiness may extend the shutdown further.

The university finds itself in a difficult position, unable to give much leeway to students as it has a R1,7-billion debt hanging over its head.

It previously said, however, that no student has to pay 100% of debt to register, and the maximum amount of payable debt for nearly 70% of students is R15 000 before they can register for the new year.

Mkhize’s communique pleads with staff to contribute at least R1 000 each from their research codes to allow “deserving students to register”, adding that deans of the college have “committed to make significant contributions”.

This move has shocked academic staff who were also critical of it, saying that most members of staff would likely not play ball.

In 2013, the university introduced a Key Performance Assessment (KPA) system which evaluates academics based on, among other things, research outputs, and sources said reducing funds because of donations could scupper their ability to meet targets.

Lecturers claimed the average grant received by an academic was about R18 000. They questioned whether this decision was taken in agreement with the vice chancellor, Professor Nana Poku, and the wider university senate. A humanities lecturer based in Durban objected to the appeal to pay student debt from their research funds, saying such an act would reward students’ bad behaviour. “Moreover, most lecturers already use their very limited research funds to assist graduate students.”

The lecture also expressed concern about whether lecturers who did not respond to the call for donations would be victimised, because it is not clear whether this is voluntary.

Meanwhile, other leaked information warned Uksu members that the university would adopt a “no work, no pay” policy. A letter from the university’s HR department to staff says essential services staff, like members of the Risk Management Services and Campus Health, may not take part.

An e-mail circulated to Uksu members lists several grievances, including alleged failure by university management to review salary demands, un­equal workloads and “inflexibility” of the KPA system, and staff members getting paid different salaries despite doing the same level of work.

“The safety of staff during violent student protests is a matter that has been ongoing for years without resolution,” the e-mail said.

Uksu said it had presented its demands to UKZN management in February last year, but nothing has been resolved as yet.

UKZN said yesterday that the humanities faculty has been providing financial support to students for years, including paying their students’ registration fees and other forms of support.

It said that this year humanities has launched an initiative to assist a select group of students who are unable to register.

“At this stage, a cost centre has been created and staff have been encouraged to make donations on a voluntary basis. It is too early to indicate how much has been raised. The college welcomes support from outside the university as well.”

Regarding the Uksu strike, the university said it is continuing to engage with the union.

“The university has always engaged in good faith and has made every effort to resolve a number of these outstanding historical demands made by Uksu.”

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  ukzn

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