Student heads to the Great Hall to study at Wits University, Johanesburg. Picture: SIHLE MAKU/THE TIMES
Student heads to the Great Hall to study at Wits University, Johanesburg. Picture: SIHLE MAKU/THE TIMES

This is not an easy time to work at a university. In fact, any form of work under lockdown conditions is challenging, though those of us still receiving remuneration are very grateful. Many people lost their jobs due to the lockdown.

Conditions of lockdown changed the face of work, perhaps forever. It was necessary to figure out how to work online, a challenge for many of us. Now it is necessary to figure out what the future will look like.

Office space might be in surplus due to work-from-home skills developed during lockdown. Training in successfully conducting and participating in online meetings will become much more important. Social protocols have changed.

In an academic environment such as a university, the changes forced by lockdown require reskilling of academics and students in aspects such as online teaching and learning. Additional responsibilities for academics include the setting of online assessments and the evaluation of students.

Likewise, the professional and administrative staff of universities had to adapt to an online environment. Engagement with clients changed completely and service delivery took on a new meaning.

In other businesses, employees are similarly challenged. Solutions had to be found for problems never before envisaged. In finding these solutions, millions of people in countless forms of employment had to focus on serving customers, patients, stakeholders, investors, borrowers, pensioners and the like. Our understanding of good service and service delivery has changed.

My experience with lockdown is in the field of higher education at a campus-based (face-to-face) teaching university. I can assume that academics at distance-learning universities such as Unisa might have experienced less pressure. Their teaching was already on a distance-delivery platform, but adaptation to assessment in a non-controlled environment is similarly challenging for these academics.

The normal description of the contribution of many of my colleagues at the university would be that they walked the extra mile. Under conditions of lockdown and online teaching, they ran many extra miles.

Confirmation and promotion of academics are areas in which universities will have to reassess policy requirements. Academics are typically appointed on probation and qualify for confirmation on the achievement of certain milestones. In a period of lockdown, with the challenges of online teaching and everything that goes with it, the achievement of milestones such as teaching evaluations and research output is impossible due to work pressure.

Through the diligent and unselfish contribution of academics, supported by the professional and administrative staff members at these institutions, universities stay open

With online teaching, the nature of teaching assessment must be reconsidered. As demands on academics are different, the focus of teaching assessment must also be adapted.

Research publication has long lead times and current increased workloads of academics leave little time for research. The impact of these long hours of work will show up in research output for years. Research output will decline.

These developments will also affect future promotion of academics. Less research might be the norm, while the value of teaching evaluations in promotion decisions will also have to be reassessed.

Through the diligent and unselfish contribution of academics, supported by the professional and administrative staff members at these institutions, universities stay open. These colleagues only ask for a little bit of recognition and some understanding.

Regarding the executive management — at universities and many other businesses that stayed open due to long hours of unselfish service by many staff members — remuneration is out of control. At a meeting of parliament’s higher education committee on June 19, higher education & training minister Blade Nzimande expressed concern about the pay gap between executive management and academics at universities. Salaries of university vice-chancellors should be investigated, he said. His concern is clearly not about the salaries of academics, but of university executives.

The salaries of university executives went haywire after university councils decided to pay these executives “performance bonuses”. I can already foresee councils and executives at universities going into overdrive, patting one another on the back for successful online teaching and learning, thus justifying executive bonuses. Similar processes for justifying executive remuneration at many other businesses will also take place.

This is the most extreme example of selfishness. Fair remuneration and profit-sharing are acceptable forms of remuneration, but not bonuses earned off the work of others. This shameful behaviour cannot be explained in any other way and must be reined in.

• Rossouw is interim head of the Wits Business School. He writes in his personal capacity.

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