As a first year student at a rural-based university, University of Zululand (Unizulu), one is exposed to a number of challenges which are unique to such an institution. As a first year student at the University of Zululand, one is not only expected to get used to life in an institution of higher learning but one is also charged with the task of understanding what informs the views of senior students. The major reason behind this is the resistance by senior students to what is presented by management as transformation.
It is common knowledge that Unizulu was established by the Apartheid government in order to cater for Black African students, particularly those from the Zululand region. This was in line with the concept of separate development as espoused by the architect(s) of Apartheid. The aim was to give an inferior tertiary education to Blacks. With this in mind, it would not be difficult to believe that such an institution or an institution founded for such purpose(s) would be lacking in terms of physical infrastructure, finances and human resources.
It would do no good to give a detailed history of the institution, as this brief overview of its history seeks to assist the reader in arriving at the conclusion that the institution, like other institutions in former Bantustans, continues to be disadvantaged in a number of critical areas. To quote from an article on the Daily News website as of the 8th of March 2013: “When the university opened 53 years ago, it catered for just 41 students. Although it has grown to 16 000 students, the infrastructure has not grown with it”.
This shows clearly the challenges that face the current crop of students.
In an attempt to address the historical challenges facing the institution, the senior management devised a Master plan aimed at drastically improving physical infrastructure, human resources, security and campus life in general. The campus Master plan is being implemented in phases after the Department of Higher Education and Training and donors gave it financial backing to the tune of R550 million. The management, all the stakeholders behind the Master plan, should be commended for their attempts at improving Unizulu.
The perpetual overcrowding in classes, lack of student residences, inadequate academic staff and a litany of other challenges need all stakeholders to have the same vision on how they should be addressed. It is also true that the management of Unizulu has the buy-in of students with regards to the Master plan. This, (remove) though, is not reflected in the response of students to the implementation of the Master plan. It is this contradiction that should be understood and dealt with.
It is true, without doubt, that any envisaged development needs the support of students for it to be successfully implemented. The 2013 academic year saw students of Unizulu rejecting transformative measures that would have seen it improving greatly in academic work and security. Students rejected the application of the Duly Performed (DP) rule and further rejected, as they do today, the implementation of a biometric security system. It ought to be appreciated that these are some of the positions on which new students and senior students differ. New students argue that senior students are rejecting transformation as they are comfortable with mediocrity. This argument, although correct in form, is devoid of content. The senior students, now being accused of frustrating transformation, are the ones who have advocated for these transformative measures.
The DP rule requires a student to have, at least 40%, as a semester mark. Obtaining this 40% then qualifies such a student to write his/her exams. In an institution where most students rely on NSFAS, this means that most students will lose their loans before even having a chance to write their exams. The DP rule requires an enabling environment, something that the University of Zululand cannot claim to have.
One would be forgiven for thinking that either the author is confused or the senior students are confused, but it is not so. The senior students are not rejecting the two measures completely, they argue that they are necessary but cannot be implemented in the current conditions. The DP rule, for example, cannot be implemented while the campus bookshop is unable to provide all the prescribed textbooks, while students attend lectures in crowded lecture halls, while some students have to study while crouching because of a lack of study desks at the library (there is only one library for the 16000+ students!).
On the question of security, it would be unwise to restrict students residing off campus from residences as they study in residence with fellow students, take shelter in residences during the day(in between classes) from unfriendly weather conditions. Hence senior students argued that, while they appreciate the security, the management has skewed priorities as it should first deal with the shortage in studying space and residences before securing them. They also felt that the new measures sought to exclude and disadvantage the majority of students, being those who reside off campus.
These events beg the question: are students in transforming universities against transformation?
I shall, in an attempt to respond to this question, provide an example of an agreement between students and management regarding the question of transformation. The management proposed an online residence placement system to replace the manual system that was in place. First year students defended the online system, unaware of some of its consequences. While senior students took a position that said, the online system is fine but the main point of contention was the question of the stricter and more exclusive prerequisites of the online system. Students were able to reserve rooms, while owing, under the manual room reservation system.
When the online room reservation system was initially introduced it was said that only students with a zero balance, that is those who have settled their debts, would be able to reserve rooms. With the prerequisites question settled, students have accepted the online system. What we then learn is, management must not impose itself, and its decision, on students, and that to truly transform our institutions of higher learning we have to engage students meaningfully. To not consult students is to reduce their intellectual capacity, it is oppressive and does nothing to develop future leaders.
What the management ought to understand well is that one cannot start by installing electronic appliances in an unbuilt house, that is illogical and is searching for failure. Disadvantaged institutions of higher education, not previously disadvantaged, require the most basic of things, bigger and more lecture halls, residences, more computers, more libraries and the like and of course adequate number of quality lecturers.
To want to shower such institutions with all manner of things found in advantaged institutions is a recipe for disaster and only perpetuates the suffering of the disadvantaged students in these disadvantaged institutions. A new approach to transformation is needed, one that will be student-centred, one that will ensure that students are active participants in shaping their institutions.
The question of whether or not, students in disadvantaged institutions are against transformation remains, and should not be taken lightly. Regressive elements are present within all student populaces and never fail to make known their regressive views. It is the duty of progressive forces to advance the struggle for the transformation of tertiary education shamelessly.
Transformation is long overdue, it should be fast tracked. In the process of advancing, all stakeholders must be given a chance to partake in processes. This can only serve our country better because everyone will be taking ownership of the outcomes thereof.
A People’s education must always be people-driven!