Cuts put jobs in danger

May 16, 1997

HUNDREDS of jobs at South Africa's universities and technikons are in jeopardy following state funding cuts.

Thousands of posts could be frozen and small "unprofitable" departments and units face closure at several institutions.

Both historically white and black institutions are reviewing their activities in the light of real-terms cuts which have sliced millions off their operating budgets. Worst hit will be people and departments who are in declining demand - mostly in the arts and humanities - and those in contract posts.

The University of Natal is "reconsidering" the jobs of 600 staff members and may have to close several departments. Stellenbosch could lose a third of its lecturers in the humanities. The universities of the Wi****ersrand, Western Cape, Cape Town, Durban-Westville, Port Elizabeth and Rhodes are all reviewing staffing and other costs. Across the country, thousands of academics will be affected.

Institutions not yet freezing posts or trying to shed people are looking at restructuring and cost cutting next year. The cuts will also hit non-academic staff - and the scores of non-governmental organisations that during the apartheid years found havens on university campuses, from which they engage in social and development work.

Cecil Abrahams, chair of the Forum of Historically Black Institutions and vice chancellor of the University of the Western Cape - which is facing cuts running into tens of millions of rand - feels betrayed by the government's lack of commitment to proper funding.

"There are laudable principles in the draft white paper and draft higher education bill," he said. "But we have not seen the resolution needed to finance them, or to deal with fundamental problems and realities on the ground."

This year's higher education budget of nearly R5 billion (Pounds 670 million) means universities and technikons will be subsidised at a level of 65.59 per cent of their operating budgets - nearly 3 per cent lower than last year's 68.1 per cent and 25 per cent down from their 89.1 per cent allocation in 1986. While the total higher education funding pie is up, inflation, soaring costs and the earmarking of sectoral funds for specific uses such as student loans and redress for the years of apartheid means that almost all universities and technikons are tightening their belts.

After more than a decade of funding cuts, they say there is not much fat left. Their problems are made harder by growing numbers of students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds: institutions are having to cut back on support at exactly the time when more is desperately needed. Historically black institutions have been hit by a funding formula that rewards fast graduation rates and emphasises the sciences and postgraduate study - none of which, for historical reasons, they have.

"There is no recognition of what we are dealing with," Professor Abrahams says.

Historically white institutions say they are suffering cutbacks in student loan funding, and that there is little chance they will benefit from earmarked funding for redress and development. Most universities reacted to cuts over the years by whittling away at the budgets of all departments. The result, says Michael Smout, vice principal and pro vice chancellor of Rhodes University, has been the weakening of departments and increasing stress on staff.

"We are going to have to look at fewer departments, which are better resourced. This is going on in a number of institutions," Professor Smout says. "This is partly the result of funding cuts, and partly because of the changing nature of the student body." At Rhodes, students have been "rearranging" themselves between departments and faculties.

With loans and bursaries increasingly tied to study in the sciences, commerce and education - areas in which black students especially are guaranteed jobs - needy students are now entering these fields in large numbers. While five years ago most black students at Rhodes were in the arts and humanities, and white students dominated science and engineering, the situation is reversing rapidly.

The University of Natal has opted for radical surgery. A report recently completed by a university task team proposes that 600 jobs be reconsidered, some departments be closed and the funding of non-teaching activities - mostly in some 60 centres and units - be stopped. The cuts would reduce the university's staff by 24 per cent, and the team also suggested savings of at least 20 per cent in administration and support services.

A major review of activities, student numbers, infrastructure and finances is also under way at the University of the Western Cape, where all vacant posts have meanwhile been frozen. "This is not a happy decision, since in some programmes we already have very high student to staff ratios," Profesor Abrahams says.

However, cutbacks - including in areas where government subsidies and student demand are low - will almost certainly be necessary.

"There is no sign that there will be more money in the education budget in future, and we will continue to admit students from poor backgrounds."

The University of Stellenbosch recently revealed that a third of its posts in the humanities - more than 50 jobs in 26 departments - could be lost in the next two years because of budget cuts of R6.3 million. The university says it will try to minimise job losses by freezing posts and offering voluntary retrenchments in some areas, but academics believe there is little that can be done to stem the flow.

The University of Durban-Westville is no better off this year than it was last year, but costs have escalated, says Humphrey Gowar, acting director of public affairs. "The critical point is that we were facing a tough year anyway. The cuts have made it diabolical."

The university has taken three categories of action aimed at meeting its reduced budget. Students have launched a culture of fees payment campaign, the university will beef up its fundraising activities, and a task group has been set up to look at cost cutting, income generation and using consultants to advise it on how to become more cost effective.

"At this stage we have no plans for retrenchment. We would rather use natural attrition," Professor Gowar says. "But we might have to change that if the pressure becomes unbearable."

Wits, which faces cuts of R12-14 million, is expecting to save some money this year by freezing posts and is currently reviewing all its academic departments and support services.

The university is also looking at marginal departments less in demand by students - classics for example - and at amalgamating departments rather than losing them.

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