University staff table solutions to the crisis on South Africa's campuses

SOUTH AFRICA
Many academics have been involved in supporting student protesters. Reuters/Rogan Ward

South Africa’s universities started the 2017 academic year in February. The country’s higher education sector is in crisis. A few weeks before classes started, academics and support staff from 19 universities and 10 unions met in Johannesburg to debate solutions. They are members of a recently formed platform called the South African Universities Staff Network for Transformation (SAUSNeT).

This is an edited extract from SAUSNeT’s post-conference declaration. Among other things, the group has called for a civil society convention on the higher education crisis and outlined several suggestions for systemic reform.

While we support students’ demands, we cannot perpetuate a culture of impunity. We declare our support for restorative justice for students facing disciplinary actions or criminal charges. This means perpetrators of violence at universities must acknowledge any wrongdoing regarding the university and its community. They must take responsibility for their actions and seek to rectify the specific harm in full view of all.

We support the “trusted convenors”, who make up the National Education Crisis Forum, in resolving these disciplinary matters through a restorative justice process.

We also believe the trusted convenors must consider establishing a commission of enquiry into human rights violations in higher education. This commission should be led by civil society groups and must also investigate how the right to peaceful protest at universities was undermined in 2015 and 2016. The trusted convenors, as our partners, should create a participatory platform with all stakeholders for dialogue, debate and negotiations. This will lead to more equitable, permanent and sustainable policy solutions in higher education. All of this must be done in a climate of trust. It must happen in a safe space initiated by respected leaders in society.

It’s time to build transformative peace and unity on our campuses. University administrators have securitised through blanket interdicts, a heavy police presence, bouncers and other extreme measures. They should desist immediately. We appeal for an undertaking and commitment to move forward through dialogue, debate and negotiations.

Reforming the system

SAUSNeT has drawn up a number of proposals for systemic reform. These include pursuing fiscal justice, tackling the problem of student hunger, advancing the next generation of university staff and building ecocentric universities.

Fiscal justice: We demand that the state increases its funding to universities. This is important to ensure fiscal justice and institutional autonomy. The increase can happen through various redistributive measures such as increasing the training levy and its allocation to universities.

Corporate taxation can also be increased. After all, corporations have benefited from massive tax cuts since the 1990s. Wealth taxes should be increased. The state must also advance a substantive basic citizens’ income grant and similar measures. Finally, the state must adequately fund the costs of insourcing workers at universities.

Fiscal waste: It’s necessary to challenge the state’s abuse of public resources. This includes the looming nuclear deal, mega infrastructure projects and annual corporate outsourcing. Such spending redirects urgently needed resources from higher education and other social priorities.

Accommodation: Ensure safe, hygienic housing and call for the gazetted minimum norms and standards to be implemented by universities. These must be applied to private student accommodation as well.

Hunger: Promote food sovereign commons. Ways to do this include planting fruit trees and vegetable gardens across campuses or linking to community small-scale farmers. This will ensure adequate nutrition for students. Fast food outlets should be replaced by communal dining halls.

Gender-based violence: We demand immediate action to address gender empowerment and sexual violence at universities. A national task team is needed to investigate rape culture, reporting institutions and university policy. Staff and students need to be educated about gender-based violence.

Advancing the next generation of staff: It is crucial to advance black postgraduate students as well as black academic, professional, administrative and support staff. This can be achieved through support programmes, training and promotion planning.

Decoloniality and Pluralities of knowledge: All knowledge systems must be valued. Decoloniality must be promoted and implemented to replace the ethos and knowledge structures of the apartheid university. Knowledge structures and ways of teaching that address the existence of coloniality need to be encouraged, supported and promoted.

Participatory governance and the power of all university staff: University councils, along with other institutional structures, need a new model or a new role. This will ensure greater transparency, participation and representivity. It is time to replace the new managerialism, performance management and market exploitation model that governs universities.

Such transformation can happen in several ways. Managerial structures should be streamlined. All staff should have decent work: living wages and non wage benefits. Centralised collective bargaining must be permitted and trade unions recognised. Wage gaps must be narrowed.

There should be greater allocation of research funds to academics in departments. Currently a tiered knowledge system exists in which elite institutes take funds away from departments even though it’s departments that carry the burden of mass teaching loads, research and academic citizenship.

There must also be adequate representation of students and staff on university governing structures.

Building ecocentric universities: This is necessary to address the lack of leadership on the climate and broader ecological crisis. Universities must champion zero carbon emissions through renewable energy, greater thermal efficiency in buildings, zero hunger through food sovereign commons, integrated public transport, car free zones, bicycle lanes and zero waste.

Research must be championed that develops climate science and an ecocentric knowledge project for university disciplines.

Vishwas Satgar was a member of the SAUSNeT conference drafting committee.

The Conversation

Vishwas Satgar received funding from the National Institute of Humanities and Social Science. He chairs the board of the Cooperative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC).