Report from UWC: Radical rhetoric gives way to bitter reality

Alex | Oct 02, 2009
UWC, famous for revolutionary rhetoric, starts the new year burdened by debts, discontented students and demoralised staff.

The University of the Western Cape, generally considered the best of the historically black universities, begins the new academic year more than usually demoralised. Its rector Professor Cecil Abrahams is distrusted, academic staff expect another round of layoffs, and more than one third of the 600 administrative and service staff — members of the militant National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) — have applied for redundancy. In addition, student debt remains high at R46 million. The attempt to collect it could well provoke the now customary annual standoff between management and students. Most ominous of all, student enrolments look set to fall yet again from around 11 000 to 9 000, with the largest faculty, arts, being especially badly hit.

Last year began with Abrahams demonstrating his firm resolve to clear up the financial mess that he had inherited. He insisted that students settle or reduce their debt with the university, then running at R63 million. Outraged students made headlines when they camped out in front of the gates, clashed with police (see picture above) and closed the institution for several days. In the end they were forced to pay up or bring their parents to campus to sign a contract indicating their payment schedule over the year. For a university that had long avoided conflict by giving in to the most powerful contenders, this was progress indeed. But by mid-October Abrahams was the object of an unprecedented vote of censure from the senate; faculty meetings passed motions of no confidence; academic and administrative staff associations demanded his resignation. In eight months he had managed to turn not just the students against him but the whole of the university community.

Abrahams’ aim could be considered laudable: the need for a tough cost-cutting strategy. In the face of a mounting deficit, reported to be around R16 million and a R4 million bank overdraft (student debt collection had proved less successful than envisaged), management rejected Nehawu’s annual wage demands. Instead, it offered nothing at all for 1998 and only 5 per cent for this year. At the same time it planned to retrench 41 permanent academic staff (out of 420) and to abolish 50 posts that were vacant.

This was bound to upset the academics who have always felt understaffed in comparison to their affluent neighbours in Cape Town and Stellenbosch. The average staff-student ratio is 27:1 but this varies considerably from department to department. Using a mechanical formula, management identified departments that were overstaffed and applied the criterion of last-in-first-out in about half the cases. Where this would have led to the loss of someone judged valuable to the university, they leapfrogged to the next person in line. Small arts departments such as French, German, Arabic, and Hellenistic languages have born the brunt, but the key English and mathematics departments have also suffered. If Abrahams had been candid about the critical situation early on in 1998, it is quite likely that, after an initial outburst, academics would have seen the need for cost cutting by way of retrenchments. For reasons unknown he failed to do this. The 41 academics received their retrenchment notices over the last weekend of September — immediately after the rector had assured specially convened groups of academics that there would be no retrenchments in 1998. Since the retrenchments were to take effect from the beginning of 1999, this was technically true but such a blatant piece of sophistry that it provoked the academic staff into a rare show of solidarity with students and Nehawu.

A stormy series of senate meetings led to the vote of censure “in the strongest terms” on the rector and the appointment of a senate committee to report into “the crisis of leadership” and financial condition of the university. Its recommendations led to more acrimonious senate meetings in November and a public if muted apology by the rector for his handling of the retrenchment crisis. As this was going on, a month-long strike by Nehawu closed the library to students and brought academic life almost to a standstill. At one point strikers prevented members of the university’s council from driving off the campus. The police once again made a heavy-handed apppearance. The students engaged in political theatre of their own as they quarrelled over the student’s representative council (SRC) and a mass meeting attempted to eject the incumbents.

The full story of Abrahams’ fall from grace, if not from office, awaits the candid analysis of his former senior colleagues who have now left the university — including three vice-rectors who appear to have found him difficult to work with. Whatever the truth in the rumours of a certain high-handedness, the rector’s nemesis was all too predictably a function of the university’s financial position. It was always unlikely that he would be able to succeed with the odds so clearly stacked against him.
UWC is still subject to all the problems which apartheid bequeathed these institutions. An atrocious school system continues to produce large numbers of poorly educated youth.
Armed with a paper matric pass, they enter institutions such as UWC with high aspirations but low capacity in crucial areas such as English language competence and numeracy. They are also often desperately poor and even the much lower fees are beyond their means, particularly if combined with residence costs. The education they receive for the most part is a passable imitation of traditional South African undergraduate tuition — in other words quite unsuitable for the majority. Facilities are inadequate, to put it mildly. The library is understocked, poorly run and user-unfriendly; there is only one walk-in computer lab for non-science students, which is usually overcrowded. Even the location conspires against them: UWC remains “in the bush”, without shops and recreational facilities within walking distance. It is little wonder that a current of alienation runs throughout the student body, ready to be ignited by the over-demanding lecturer, the second semester food crisis at the residences or the annual fees hike. All these factors have their roots in the past.

UWC opened its doors in 1960 with 162 coloured students, only five of them women. It was situated in Proteaville (the name never stuck) a desolate area of Bellville-South, which was envisaged as some kind of capital for the “Coloured-Nation-In-Becoming”. It was a replica of the other “bush colleges” established at the same time. A series of undistinguished Broederbond rectors and a largely Afrikaner staff presided over students for whom the new institution was an alien imposition. This autocratic white management ran the place like a high school and refused to allow the student representative council real powers. Student numbers grew slowly so the tension inherent in the situation was not openly manifested until 1970 when a student was kicked out of a lecture for not wearing a tie. Led by Richard Stevens, now UWC’s director of public affairs, students symbolically burned a tie in protest. Three years later, complaints over food escalated into a full-scale confrontation that stunned the paternalist management. In 1975 the government moved to head off mounting resentment by appointing the first coloured rector. For the next 18 years, two remarkable and very different individuals, Richard (Dick) van der Ross and then Gerhardus Johannes (Jakes) Gerwel, led UWC.
A former high school teacher, head of the Battswood Teachers’ Training College and graduate of the University of Cape Town, van der Ross was a man of immense civility and good sense. But just two months after the Soweto uprising in June 1976 a tidal wave of student protest engulfed the UWC campus. The new rector’s insistence on the need for an educated population as well as political change was of limited appeal to the increasingly radical students. Much later he recalled a student saying to him “Mr Rector, the difference between you and us is that you think the revolution will come tomorrow; we say today.” He replied: “let us talk again after six months.” Disorder for disorder’s sake is no revolution, he said, and revolution is not necessarily a bloody affair on the streets. He preached the virtues of hard work, good manners and humane values to a constituency in which many considered him a sell-out. However, his undoubted moral courage — he was many times in the years to come to be seen facing baying student meetings or in the middle of student-police confrontations — created a grudging student respect for “Uncle Dick”.

Matric results of new students were on average low, a situation for which van der Ross did not apologise, stating that UWC was “a university which opened its doors to all who fulfilled the minimum qualifications”. Fees were also kept down to enable poorer students to enter. As he half-humorously liked to put it, UWC stood for “University of the Working Class”. The list of distinguished South Africans who graduated from UWC or rose to prominence under his rectorship is a long one, beginning with Jakes Gerwel and including in the field of social science Wilmot James, Rhoda Kadalie, Yvonne Muthien and Fred Hendricks. Although conservative Afrikaners were still numerous among the staff, van der Ross’s leadership provided the more liberal element among the white staff and the growing coloured lecturer presence with a rallying point that liberated the university from its Broederbond past. The development of most consequence for the institution’s future, however, was the rapid growth in student numbers. The moderate growth of the first 20 years now became a series of annual jumps. In 1984 enrolment increased from 4 885 to 6 125, and by 1990 had reached 12 405. This trend, aided by the generous admission policies and fee structures, began under van der Ross and not, as subsequent critics have alleged, under the radical rectorship of Jakes Gerwel. The latter’s high-profile stance in favour of People’s Education and the widening of educational opportunities for the country’s disenfranchised population was a reflection of more insistent demographic trends which had already surfaced during van der Ross’s tenure, and which were to be reflected later at the other black universities.
On his appointment in 1985 Gerwel distinguished himself from his predecessor in the following words:

“I am from a younger generation with a good dose of marxism as critical paradigm . . . I come from a generation which says that politics always plays a role; academe and the university also have a real role to bring about political change . . . I am becoming rector at a time when the crisis of authority, the crisis of validity — some people call it the crisis of legitimacy — of the state and the government is not any longer just a theoretical construction but is written in huge letters in every house, every school and the university.”

His inauguration as rector brought the university establishment more closely into line with the dominant ethos in student politics. Gerwel was typical of many other young black South African intellectuals who came of age as students in the harsh climate of the Black Consciousness movement, and then moved increasingly closer to the Congress Alliance. Gone were van der Ross’s sensible if conventional homilies on the need for education through work. The new rhetoric spoke of non-racism, non-sexism, democratisation, socialism and accountability to the oppressed community at large. The university was to be an “intellectual home of the left” and create the “space” (a favourite Gerwel term) for the voice of the voiceless, its mission to promote “People’s Education” in a “People’s University”.

In private a modest person with a quick and self-deprecatory wit, Gerwel could rise to oratorical heights in his public speeches. His diffident manner concealed very strong nerves and the combination of dry humour and assurance could control senate meetings with an altogether iron hand. He had few scruples about using the university as a political base: for him, and many others at UWC at the time, politicisation was a virtue to be imported into the centre of the institution’s intellectual life. Student militancy was not so much a problem as a force to be harnessed to the right ends. Incidents of coercion and student disorder (disruption of classes, intimidation of students wishing to carry on studying, vandalism of property, looting of residence food stores and so on) were aberrations induced by the conditions of apartheid society. For a brief time, UWC and its diminutive rector seemed to encapsulate the passionate resistance of the population of the Western Cape to a crumbling white supremacy. During the 1989 Defiance Campaign, Gerwel and the university’s chancellor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, were captured in a memorable news picture stumbling through clouds of tear gas during a protest in Guguletu township.

But all this came at a price. Despite much warmer relations (at the ideological level at least) between the management and the students, instability plagued the university. Boycotts and the nefarious activities of the student “disruption squads” who enforced boycott decisions by disrupting classes and attacking students in the library, remained as much a feature of UWC as under van der Ross. The overriding imperatives of the struggle led to much rationalisation of the pervasive incivility and incompetence of both students and staff. To be progressive was all.

With a self-confessed marxist thinker at its head, outsiders saw UWC as rife with revolutionary thinking. In 1987 the Reverend Alan Hendricks, leader of the coloured Labour Party and of the house of representatives under the 1983 tricameral constitution, called for the closure of the university on the grounds that all it taught was marxist dogma. This picture of UWC as a campus steeped in the intricacies of marxist thought was never valid. Most students (and staff for that matter) either knew as little about marxist theory as the average South African or could only summon up the most vulgar marxism imaginable, expressed in jargon borrowed from the South African Communist Party (SACP). For a minority, however, this was not true. One of Gerwel’s undoubted achievements was to recruit a number of very able academics some of whom were competent analysts of a marxist tinge. Colin Bundy was only the best-known of these. In addition, although necessarily to an extent unknown at the time, SACP activists appear to have had Gerwel’s ear and acted as political advisers. Johnny Issel, one of the toughest of Cape Flats activists with rumoured links to the underground Umkhonto we Sizwe, was one example. But the most vociferous marxist academics and students were a loose coterie with trotskyite sympathies. Under the austere eye of the philosopher Andrew Nash the weekly meeting of the marxist theory seminar acted as an intellectual energiser in an environment where real debate only intermittently flourished.

Ironically, this blooming of marxist rhetoric took place under the shadow of perestroika. It is truly piquant to read today Johnny Issel’s 1988 speech to the UWC academic staff association regarding the advanced stage which has been “reached in the continuing struggle between the two world systems . . . As the capitalist world recedes, increasing space is won by the socialist world and the nationalist states.” This sentiment went down well at the time and provided an atmosphere in which at least some intellectual excitement could be generated: believers and sceptics clashed in the classroom and at lunchtime meetings. In retrospect, one grows nostalgic — if only the same passion about abstruse theorists remained to animate the campus today.

The haze of People’s Education rhetoric which enshrouded the campus in the late 1980s could not altogether disguise the more lasting developments that have placed UWC in its present unenviable predicament. First, was the massive growth in student numbers and the strain this placed on the campus. Its legacy remains in overcrowded lecture halls, demoralised lecturers and alienated students. But numbers alone have never been the only problem. Nothing illustrates better the predicament of institutions like UWC more than a glance at its students’ matric results. In the decade 1984-1994 more than 80 per cent of new students were entering with a matric aggregate of D or E. Worse, more than half of this 80 per cent had entered with E aggregates. The most direct expression of this poor matric performance is to be found at the level of English-language competence. In 1994 a lecturer involved in remedial English teaching wrote that “more than 70 per cent of all first year students at UWC do not possess the language skills needed to help them cope with their studies.” An internal UWC study in 1995 showed, as one would expect, a strong link between poor matric peformance and the failure rate at the university. In many departments less than half of the E aggregate students were passing their first-year exams and less than 60 per cent of the D aggregates. But in a climate of outspoken pressure from students and unspoken pressure by the adminstration to increase the pass rate this situation had to change. One former Rhodes academic, Les Switzer, described the shocking “grade inflation” he found at UWC and other South African universities when he returned after 10 years. Evidence of this latter trend is all too abundant at UWC. In the faculty of arts, for example, a pass rate of 58 per cent in 1983 rocketed to 78 per cent in 1992 — although the matric performance of students in both years was similar.

Anecdotal evidence from lecturers is replete with stories of student pressure and the silent conspiracy of many academics to avoid a student backlash by passing 90 per cent or more of their class while privately bemoaning the quality of their academic performance. A new colleague in my department who was naive enough to apply “standards” which he had brought with him from a background in Britain recently failed 80 per cent of his students in a large second-year class. The result was a series of hate notices on his door and a nasty incident when students crowded into his office and manhandled him.

The contrast with the neighbouring University of Stellenbosch is stark. Here 80 per cent of students enter with matric aggregates of C and above. As UWC management never tires of pointing out, the university is performing a most useful function — for UCT and Stellenbosch. In taking in the large number of weak students that it does, it acts as a buffer for its neighbours, shielding them from the worst effects of the crisis of the educational system. For lecturers at UWC the standard of education of the average undergraduate (there are of course many who are fully competent to undergo university education, though they tend to get swallowed up in the mass) is the main fact of a depressing daily life.

There seems to be an obvious solution: compel students with low matric marks to undergo a testing process in which those who are simply not equipped to cope with the most rudimentary university work are screened out. However this runs not only against the national goal of higher education expansion but directly against the self-interest of the university’s staff. Under the current funding policy half the state subsidy is calculated on the numbers of students enrolled, thus it pays a university such as UWC to accept students who are ill-equipped to pass and who do not pay their fees, rather than to exclude them. The other half of the subsidy is calculated on the numbers of students who pass, and is the major reason behind the university’s tacit pressure on lecturers to pass as many students as possible. Ideally, of course, students should enrol en masse and pay their fees, a situation which UWC administrators devoutly desire. Hence the action at the beginning of 1998. But those senior managers who have to deal with the daily reality of student life have no such illusions and urge that all be registered, debt or not, in an extended process which usually drags on for the whole of the first quarter. The large numbers of students with an E matric thus continue to enrol, and fail, or what is worse scrape through with 50 per cent due to lecturers adopting a marking strategy guaranteeing the least student pressure. Otherwise lecturers face a trail of students pressing for a fail mark to be upgradeg to a pass. Anger, aggression, tears, pathos and heart-rending stories of the enormous bank debt that they have incurred often accompany their entreaties.

Having accepted large numbers of weak students, the university then proceeds to do nothing much for them. It is of course debatable that much could be done for young people whose minds have been ravaged by the current state of public schools. Lip service is paid to “academic development”. An Academic Development Centre exists, but scratches only the surface of a mammoth remedial task — and in the current fiscal crisis is threatened with sharp staff cutbacks. The history of academic development at UWC is a saga in itself. In line with its self-proclaimed “progressive” ethos, the idea of academic development to address the academic incapacity of the majority of students began to be debated under Gerwel in the late-1980s, with the usual endless round of consultations. The outcome was the so-called “infusion” model. Since it was agreed that at UWC, unlike the neighbouring elite universities, it was the majority and not just a relatively small minority of students who came from poor school backgrounds, academic development was to become not the job of a specialist group but rather was to be suffused throughout the whole lecturing corps. Every academic, in other words, was to be his or her own remedial teacher.

Amazingly enough, few voices were raised to point out the folly of this idea. Anyone acquainted with universities — in South Africa and elsewhere — knows that lecturing capacity is very unevenly spread among the ranks of academics. Many brilliant researchers are simply not good classroom material. And for the mediocre mass, a dramatic upgrading of teaching skills presupposed by the infusion model was yet another Utopian idea of that most simple-minded of creeds, People’s Education. At most universities, given the relative competence of students, this wide variation in lecturing abilities is not a major problem — students learn to cope with even the worst of teachers, while at times gaining inspiration from the best. At UWC, however, it was precisely this student competence which was, and is, lacking. Needless to say, the expected infusion of academic development expertise throughout the staff has failed to materialise; though some gestures are made towards it in ritualistic fashion.

The second watershed of Gerwel’s period as rector was the demolition of the previous ethnic base of the student population. Van der Ross introduced the policy that UWC should become an open university that no longer abided by its apartheid mission of education for coloured students. But it was only under Gerwel that rapid growth in the numbers of African first language students occurred — rising from 400 in 1986 to 4 308 in 1992 (from 5 per cent of the total student population to 34 per cent). Today students with an African first language comprise the majority of new entrants and the vast majority in faculties such as arts. This transition from segregation to openness was both inevitable and desirable, but its consequences were neither foreseen nor rationally planned for. The most important result is that English became the de facto language of tuition. Until the late 1980s tuition was effectively bilingual, especially at first-year level where the majority Afrikaans-speakers welcomed the chance to study in their home language. From 1988 the growth in students with an African first language started a slide to monolingualism and the abandonment of Afrikaans classes. This may be the major reason for the sharp decline in the number of coloured students at UWC — by the late 1990s the numbers of Afrikaans first language students were for the first time less than those of English speakers.
The impact of growing numbers of African first language students was felt elsewhere. By 1989 the minority of African students on campus dominated student politics. An all-African SRC was elected; the majority of coloured students yielded the field to the newcomers as the rector and his advisers spoke sternly of the need for “African leadership” and proclaimed a Year of Non-racism. “Race tension” had arrived on campus, though its extent was often exaggerated on the outside. The influx of African students was probably another reason for the decline in coloured enrolments: research in my department suggests the existence of mild antipathy between coloured and African, with both viewing the other as unfairly advantaged. But this racist undercurrent is not virulent. Interpersonal relationships remain cordial and the ideal of non-racism sits reasonably comfortably with the majority of students and staff. It remains one of UWC’s strong points that South Africans of all backgrounds rub along pretty well in a situation where white over-representation in the staff is not the hottest issue. Here UWC is much better placed than institutions such as Wits and UCT.

The third, and in terms of the survival of the institution, the most ominous trend to emerge under Gerwel was the problem of student debt and its contribution to the precarious financial position of the university. Lacking private endowments, living on thin or absent reserves and catering for a student population from poor backgrounds, UWC was never financially secure. But it could stagger along on its subsidy and on the system of bursaries from the house of representatives to coloured students (for posts such as teachers and social workers) until the late 1980s. In 1988 Die Burger with its usual relish for UWC horror stories reported that student debt in that year had rocketed to R17 million. UWC promptly took the newspaper to the Media Council for printing a false report. The figure of R17 million had been the case earlier in the year, but by the time Die Burger published it the amount had been reduced to R5 million. The Media Council duly rebuked the paper and UWC rejoiced — too soon alas. Student debt was indeed becoming a problem and by 1992 had become unsustainable. A fee increase and an attempt to force student to make larger payments upfront on pain of exclusion in that year led to a fierce confrontation that has become practically an annual event. The lack of financial viability of the former black universities that lies at the root of campus instability has thus festered throughout the 1990s.

Gerwel’s term of office terminated abruptly with the national elections of April 1994. Many had thought him a likely candidate for the new minister of education. Instead, he was summoned to be director-general in the President’s office, and left almost overnight. An interregnum between May 1994 and September 1995 saw yet more instability and disruption, including a memorable hostage-taking by students of almost the whole university leadership in March 1995 over the issue of exclusion of students for debt and academic non-performance. During this debacle vice-rector Colin Bundy was to be observed pensively smoking a cigarette on the balcony of the admin building while students refused to allow him and his colleagues to leave. Police rescued them and the university failed to prosecute the student culprits.

The candidates for rector had to present public statements of their vision for the university and all seven “stakeholder” groups (council, management, academics, Nehawu, SRC, convocation, and alumni) had equal votes. Professor Abrahams was appointed in late 1995. A nephew of the well-known exile South African novelist Peter Abrahams, he himself had left the country after his racial classification shut him out of the best universities in the country, and rose to a senior administrative position at Acadia University in Canada. It was clear that he shared little of Gerwel’s vision of a university of the left, presenting a largely conventional vision of a university’s role while still embracing the prevailing rhetoric of democratisation, transparency and accountability.

He soon pointed out that he had inherited the problems facing UWC and emerged as a strong if diplomatic critic of his predecessor’s regime. The campus work ethic left a lot to be desired, he stated early on in speeches to academics and staff. The campus was unkempt, full of litter and needed sprucing up. He himself turned out for a Clean Up The Campus Day when staff and student volunteers went around picking up litter. The purpose of a university was academic. The slogan “Home of the Left” was quietly discarded and the new rector produced his own motto: “A Place of Quality, A Place to Grow”. He also projected the image of a strong, no-nonsense manager who was willing to tackle the thorny issues on which his predecessors had failed to take decisive action — such as student debt.

Though at times complicit in its own predicament, UWC is a victim of forces way beyond its control. Gerwel’s rhetoric of a People’s University for a time disguised — even for many staff who should have known better — the ongoing structural weaknesses of the university’s position. With the advent of Abrahams and the adoption of a conventional university ethos, the ever-present gap between rhetoric and reality has become acutely evident, except to government, it would seem, which continues to fiddle while campuses are trashed. Few commissions can have been as disappointing, and as potentially catastrophic, as the National Commission on Higher Education. Offered the opportunity to face up to the awful plight of the former bush colleges, it chose to avert its face from truly radical reform. Palliatives such as redress funding and rhetorical support for academic development were contradicted by the recommendation of yet more expansion, yet more underqualified university students struggling with unsuitable tuition. And on the hard question of student funding it opted out altogether, with a wishful gesture towards a national student bursary fund for which enough money was never available. The idea of redress funding too has become something of a joke, with 17 institutions to share R27 million.
Over the past five years, the ministry of education’s basic approach to the former bush colleges has been one of malign neglect that has seen most of them sink further into a morass of debts, administrative collapse and general demoralisation. Last month for the first time the ministry seemed to promise action with the announcement of a summit on student debt in the tertiary sector — reportedly “a matter of extreme concern to the minister”.

Sceptics will wonder why it has taken so long for the minister to show such concern; will the prospect of the general election prompt some stop-gap aid that treats just the most obvious symptoms of the deep-seated crisis. For the moment the pretence is made that all the former bush colleges are true universities. UWC probably comes closest to that illusory accolade. But it is not going to make it on its own.