Call to unbundle NWU due to dominance of Potchefstroom

National Education, Health, and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) has called for the dismantling of North-West University (NWU) into three stand-alone and independent universities.

The proposal was made in a letter written by the union’s Mahikeng campus leader Prof Molefa-kgotla Alex Molefi to the Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande.

Molefi said the call was made after Potchefstroom campus of NWU was given decision-making powers at the expense of other campuses, including Mahikeng campus, formerly the University of Bophuthatswana, a historically black university.

In his letter of complaint dated July 14, 2022, Molefi said Potchefstroom campus should be renamed University of Tlokwe, while the Vanderbijlpark campus should assume the name of University of Lekoa – detached from the Potchefstroom campus or merged with the Vaal University of Technology. The Mahikeng campus should take the name of University of Bokone Bophirima.

Molefi argued that the merger of these institutions into NWU has failed because the admission of students for Mahikeng and Vanderbijlpark campuses is strictly administered from the Potchefstroom campus – with no due consideration of peculiar challenges faced by
rural students, including accessibility to tertiary learning opportunities.

Potchefstroom and Vanderbijlpark campuses remain better resourced by comparison, with the Mahikeng campus at the bottom rung of resource distribution, said Molefi, an academic at the faculty of economic and management sciences.

“The purpose of this letter is to request the minister of higher education and training to consider our request for the demerger of the North West University into three distinct, stand-alone campuses, independent of one another admini-stratively in compliance with the rights of further education,” said Molefi.

The NWU was formed in 2004 through the merger of the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education (and its Vanderbijlpark campus), the University of North West (formerly University of Bophuthatswana) and the Sebokeng campus of the Vista University.

Molefi said the merger has failed to redress discrimination by ensuring representivity and equal access.

“Although this has been hailed as one of the most successful and stable mergers, it is our view that the principles and intended objectives of merging these two universities with different backgrounds, have not been successfully achieved over the past 17 years.

“It is for this reason that we are unable to fold our arms and watch its hostile take-over and erosion … The Potchefstroom campus is white dominated, not compliant with the numerical targets, but this is of no concern to the leadership of the university,” said Molefi.

He said there was a lack of commitment to multilingualism at the NWU “by allowing Potchefstroom to remain with Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, projecting the campus with the pretext that Afrikaans is a niche language and using this to exclude blacks from being admitted at the Potchefstroom campus.

“This is pushing white supremacy in the university and requires attention. The apartheid legacy continues to burden higher education systems in the university, which remains fragmented on race lines and is unable to rise above these to meet the challenges of transformation,” said Molefi.

“The current set-up at NWU does not meet the demands of social justice and so fails to address the social and structural inequalities of higher education [and] thus maintains the legacy of apartheid. Race and ethnicity continue to act as a stumbling block for admission of students at Potchefstroom campus.”

Nehawu North West provincial secretary Ntombizodwa Moepeng said the provincial organisation supports the call for the demerger.

“Whatever our members are saying we support. The North West province is too rural. Most people in the province are -living in rural areas and are struggling to access universities. They are even struggling to access the Mahikeng campus. The Mahikeng campus is being reduced to a white elephant. This demerger will bring back the independence of Mahikeng campus and allow a lot of student intake for people from rural areas,” said Moepeng.

NWU spokesperson Louis Jacobs said the principal and vice-chancellor of the NWU, Prof Bismark Tyobeka, had an engagement with a Nehawu delegation in September last year.

 “During this meeting, the matter of the de-merger was raised by Nehawu.

“In responding to this issue, the vice-chancellor again reiterated that it was not within his competency to deal with such matters but in the functional domain of the minister as the merger of the university campuses was done through an act of Parliament and for demerger the act will have to be amended.

“The union said they would take the matter of a demerger to the minister,” said Jacobs.

Nzimande’s spokesperson, Veli Mbele, said the minister would respond to Nehawu’s letter through an “appropriate platform”.

“The department has noted the letter by Nehawu’s North-West University branch. Its contents will be responded to through the appropriate platform,” said Mbele.

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