Town hall meeting with academics – May 2016

Big issues

Student numbers

Student numbers are up. Our target for new students was 6600, with an assumed attrition rate that would have taken us down to about 6200. We have enrolled 40 below the target (of 6600). The problem was that we have had a far higher proportion of returning students (second, third and fourth year), than we expected. In fact 2500 more students came back than we expected. The reason they came back was that Government has fiddled with the rules that determine the return rate of students.
We have a rule that says if you pass, you are entitled to come back, by law. But what we do, is that we model, over four or five years, what our return rates are and then we can offer first year places. But what happened in December was that Government changed the NSFAS funding models and the models around first fee payment etc.

What happened was that more students returned, either because of the new funding arrangements, or some of the other possibilities. So, effectively we had 2500 more returning students. And that is where the problem lies.
We can’t stop them, by law, so our models went out. We now have to determine new models and adjust our numbers for the first year intake. The problem is, however, that our models used to be based on the numbers for the intakes of previous years, which we now don’t have anymore – we only have a one year cycle.

This is not just a problem for our university it is a problem for every university in the country.
Our post grad target is 11 469, and we think that we are already at 11 044 at the end of April. So we anticipate that we will enrol Masters and PhDs in the coming months, which we will make our post graduate target, which is exactly where we want to be. So our real problem is the over enrollment of returning students at the undergraduate level.


We have had some big drama at the beginning of the year, around the registrations where the students wanted to disrupt the registration process. You know I had to bring in private security, and I have spoken to each of the faculties on this matter, so I am not going to cover that ground.

Since then, we have had most of our registration done and our academic programme is intact. It is actually astonishing that we have not lost a single day in the last five months.
We had two attempts at protests. The one was the Israeli-Palestinian saga that played out six or seven weeks ago. The other problem was that the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSC) had effectively launched a protest a week ahead of this arranged and agreed date that we have negotiated. I was particularly angry, because it compromised the safety and security of the university community.

What has happened was that the individuals associated with that were charged and they will go through a disciplinary process, because you just can’t come to an agreement, and then violate the agreement, because that is just not acceptable.
The second was an attempt by individuals from inside the university, and many outside the university, who came to Wits a few weeks ago, and had a day where they tried to disrupt the university. For at least two hours, they really ruffled some feathers and created all kinds of problems. They pulled out one or two people from their classes.

The problem was that it took us four hours to get the police on site and another long one-and-a-half hours to get them to do anything. Once we got the private security in, we got things under control. And, as you well know, we have suspended 16 individuals, for what was effectively a violation of the court interdict, and they will face disciplinary hearings. We have also barred certain individuals, who came from outside the university. They will no longer be allowed.

What irritated me about the protests was that people deliberately lied. They said that we are excluding students, while we had an agreement that we will not be excluding students. So, there was a deliberate lie to get the protests going, and there were all kinds of games being played.

The moment the private security came in, we stabilised it within a couple of hours, and we have had no problems. We are monitoring the issue very carefully.

Seething discontent

I do worry that there is a serious discontent in the system. I think it comes from outside the university. It is playing out, from outside the university, in the broader society, and is spilling into the university.
But it is true that the system is seething. UJ had a protest on Friday at the Doornfontein campus, and yesterday in the morning, a guardhouse was burnt down outside Campus Square. Stellenbosch had some action yesterday. Max (Price, UCT Vice Chancellor), says to me they had a topless protest at UCT, but other than that, it isn’t much more than rumblings in the system. We have been fairly stable.

I have worries because if there are rumblings in the system, it can surface here any minute. So there is a kind of a seething discontent, and you got to keep your eyes out very carefully in this regard.
I am worried about two sets of issues that are coming out of these protests.

The first is that, if you walk around our campus, and if you look at it, it is no different than any other campus in the world. There is only one problem, and that is that people’s perceptions are that the place is burning. So that is causing two worries. One is that middle class parents are looking at other Higher Education options outside the country for their kids – and it is something that I am particularly worried about – and the second is, that I have in the last six weeks spent time with two sets of funders in New York. Both sets of funders give us an enormous amount of money, and both funders wanted to know one thing: “Is my money safe, and is Wits stable?”.

I don’t think people realise that in the last year our research and associated funding from external sources was equivalent to R2 billion. We get that R2 billion on the assumption that the university is stable and that there is a trust in the institution. We lose that trust, and all of that money is gone.

And if all that money is gone, we are in serious trouble as an institution. That is not just a Wits problem. It is a problem for all of the big institutions in the system.

Thoughtful engagement

We need thoughtful engagement, and we need academics and members of the Wits community to engage on the subject. We have a situation where many academics have just switched off, saying, these guys are crazy and I just get bored with the debates and ignore them.

But if you allow simply a small minority to voice their issues, and ordinary academics are not heard, then you create the impression that this is the representative voice of the academy. So, I am urging everybody, in every faculty, in every school, to be heard on the big issues of the day. And the same applies to the students. If you don’t do that, then we become the architects of our own demise.

Every single academic need to be heard. Don’t get switched off. By getting switched off, you allow others to actually articulate what their academic interest is, which may not be what the mainstream academic interest is. It is important to be heard on this matter.

Difficult time

Exams are starting in 10 days, and while we think that everything is on track, there might be some attempts of disruptions in the last week. We are aware that this week, it has already started in the (Higher Education) system. We can’t say whether it is because we are 10 days away from exams or whether it is something else, but we have to watch that.

We are going into a very difficult period. 16th of June, is as you know, the 40th anniversary of June 1976, and we are going into local government elections on August 3. So I am trying to figure out what is going to happen before then. I do know that for next year’s student fee increases, the situation has been managed by the Department of Higher Education, and we have been asked not to do anything. They are going to put a national team together to explore options and to put a number on the table.
That number is just a recommendation, so we can decide to reject it. The issue is that, firstly, they might make a political decision rather than a decision based on our costs. That is very possible.

The second is that they assume that because they have made the decision that somehow there are not going to be student protests. I don’t think that is a correct assumption to make. Do not be under any illusions that this will not create any protests. We think that the commission that they have created will give some response back to the ministry by the end of June. Depending on how long the minister takes, we could have a response by the middle of July, and that does mean that it will be just before the local government elections, and that breathes itself out in all kinds of ways.

That is something that we need to be weary, and perhaps worried, about.

I wish I could say that we are out of the woods. I don’t think we are. I think it will remain a difficult couple of months. I do think we are doing better than most institutions, but that doesn’t say much, because most institutions are in a very difficult situation.


At last count, our research output figures (on 2015 numbers) were above our target, which is 1500. We are just below our stretch target, which is about 1560, we are at 1550. They are busy doing final wrap-ups, so it looks like we’ve done well in research output, which is astonishing again.

Gender issues

There’s been a lot of challenges at Rhodes University around gender-based harm, and we have had similar solidarity protests at Wits, and there’s also been issued around UCT around rape and sexual harassment and more gender-based harm. It is a reality that we need to face. There’s huge gender-based harm in the society as a whole, and we shouldn’t be surprised that it is happening in the universities. And although we’ve taken action in 2013, and fired people, this is clearly something that is prevailing with us, and we need to be mindful of.

After 2013, we’ve established a Gender Equity Office, and we have overhauled our legal disciplinary processes around this, so it is inquisitorial rather than prosecutorial, which means effectively that we don’t allow the victim and the perpetrator in the same room. We effectively allow somebody to do a study, they write a report and then a panel of experts interview the perpetrator and the victim in separate rooms and make a decision.

The purpose of the gender office is to provide professional counselling to victims, it provides mediation, dispute resolution and disciplinary hearings. They do trend analysis of gender-based harm and they do significant advocacy on gender equality.
But, while we made some gains, clearly there are still major challenges around it, and this is something that we need to monitor and manage on a regular basis, which we do.

Please, in cases of gender-based harm, to encourage people to go to the office of Gender Equality.

Q: What was the reason that the PSC moved their event to a week earlier?

A: For a number of years we’ve had problems between the PSC and the SA Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS). What has begun to happen over the last 24 months, is that they both wanted to have an event on the same day, which is in the Anti-Apartheid week. And they both want the same venue (the gardens in front of the library), because that is the most prominent place.

Twelve months ago, one of the sides booked out every venue for the day, before the other guys could book, so only they could have their events. So, we said that is not acceptable.
Then they said they also want access to the gardens. So, we’ve put a process in place for them to share the gardens, and neither of them was very happy with it.

The PSC felt the process was unfair and that they had booked it, so they want it. But then you are going to get into the cycle that people will book the venue for 10 years in advance, with the logic behind it to prevent the other side from having it.

This has grown into a lot of tension, so I said that if they don’t learn to share, I am not going to allow the event to happen. So, eventually they agreed. But, the PSG didn’t want to share, so they decided to launch their programme one week before without anybody knowing.

And what they did was that they got the mountaineering club to book the venue, under the pretext that there was an exercise to be held, and they launched the Palestinian Solidarity event.

There are two or three problematic things. The reason that we need to know in advance is that if there is anything that involves Israel or Palestine, we need to be informed in advance, because it has an emotional context and there is a risk of violence. We need to put security protocols in place to handle that.

The second is that you can’t have someone saying they want to do something and then do a completely different thing. It would completely violate all our processes.

It was one of those difficult issues where people believe rules should apply to others but not to themselves. It doesn’t matter who I favour or not. Rules should apply equally to all.

Q: I have noticed a report in that the task team on performance management has come to some sort of agreement on something and that it will be presented at Senate? Can you brief us on that? Also on the Council report (as reported by Vuvuzela).
A: Senate set up a committee, and that committee is being managed by Tawana Kupe. And there are two sets of teams. One was for the professional and administrative staff and one was for the academics. They have been working on this, so there will be a report at the Senate meeting. I have not received the report yet, but I think that there will be a report on this.
Senate has set up a committee, chaired by Tawana Kupe. There will be a report to Senate.

I should also mention the executive variable pay (executive bonuses).

As you know, we have a component where executives have a salary, and then they have a variable payment portion. There was an issue with the variable pay. We did pay it, although I gave up my component, and others did as well.

There was a document put forward by one internal council member, Professor Dickenson, who said we should do away with variable pay. We effectively commissioned a study that benchmarked executive salaries. What it found is, that without the variable pay, we would be one of the lowest paid in the sector zone, and that our executives would be very low paid in comparison to their peers. That would have a serious problem around having the competitive edge.

The second thing that was decided was that if you added the variable pay, we are still not the highest and we lie at number five or six in the hierarchy. There was a big argument, by some, who said get rid of variable pay on principle, and add that to the executive salaries. But that would actually cost you more as an institution, because not everybody get their full amount. So, you would actually end up paying more, because you take something that is based on a performance based amount and turn it into a fixed amount.

We have also made a decision on performance management. So what you’d end up doing is undermining the performance management system that you’re putting into place. Because you cannot end up doing that for staff and academics but not for executives.
So it ended up being a big debate, and then the council made a decision. I do want to say that myself and all of the executives excused themselves from that debate, and at the end of that a decision was made and the majority decision was to keep the system as it is.

It does show that there was a significant minority, and the significant minority was largely based from internal quarters.

Q: Can the Academic Staff Association of Wits University (Asawu) move to Senate house to make it more accessible? That would make Asawu more effective if they had a clearer presence, below management floors.

A: I am not particularly opposed to it, and it might make sense, actually. Please raise it with the Asawu, and get Asawu to communicate it, and then we will take it from there.

Q: The issue with the government changing the model of returning students. On the one hand, it has to do with government changing the funding model, but you get financial and academic exclusion. How many of them were excluded because of academics, and not because of funding? And how much of that was because of October’s events, where you had to relax conditions for exclusion, and going forward, what would be the effect that it contributed to?