Show me the money

Should we worry about where our fees go? Does frivolous spending abound or are Rhodes’ finances in good hands?  The heroic and dashing Rodain Joubert investigates.

Fountain

Slap a “default” tag on your “normal” meal, brother, it’s the revolution! Yes, the change has finally arrived. It’s new. It’s magical. It’s friendly.

“It’s pedantic,” says Jonathan Snelgar, between bites of his now-default chicken leg. This second year BA student doesn’t believe that the change has really done anything constructive for the environment of his hall, and some of his peers are incredulous about the time and effort that they feel has gone into the plan. Others disagree, citing the reason that the change is a valuable political correction. In fact, it’s in line with measures taken by other South African institutions already.

However, this doesn’t stop that one question from leaving a nay-sayer’s lips: “How much did it cost?”

Rhodes is a small institution. This means it has a small budget, and financial decisions need to be made with more care. But some students feel that not enough has been done at times to ensure proper spending, and these concerns are occasionally brought up amongst friends while walking along the campus streets, between beers at a local pub, or amidst grumbling about life, the universe and their fluffy pink slippers when shuffling together after a cruelly-timed fire drill.

When questioned, various students pointed out their personal spending gripes. Along with the issue of the dining hall meals, concerns included campus decorations like the central fountain, expensive fish for the aforementioned fountain, “unimportant” paint jobs, really expensive fish, the security boom and guardhouse for staff parking, costly fish, and even department-based gripes such as expenditure on the AMM building’s aesthetics. Oh, and fish.

Students believe that there are better ways to spend the money. For example, some were asked specifically what they thought of expenditure on residence security. “What they have isn’t enough,” says BCom student Radintshi Monyobo. “I think that the University does generally budget well, but there are places where spending is ineffective.” Not everybody agrees with this particular view on security, but quite a few people still have their own ideas about Rhodes’ funding.

Other students feel that there is a need for the institution to be more clear and forward on how it distributes funds. “Where do they actually spend their money?” asks Mark Swaine, a BSc student. “After all, we’re paying to be here and should know where our money goes.”

So, is our academic institution a secretive financial menace with plans to buy everlasting supplies of koi fish and paint all the toilet seats on campus purple? Well, it may be fun to jump to that conclusion (the seat colours could be a refreshing change, after all), but according to some key sources there’s no need to put our panic hats on just yet.

“Name changes cost almost nothing,” says Dr Iain L’Ange, Director of the Residential Operations Division. This goes for the meal changes as well as the renaming of residences around campus.

In fact, for residences, only a small amount of a building’s budget is spent on new signage (basically, a shiny new plate with the words “Dirk van Pienkerwinkel House” written on it). Even less gets spent on something like a diet name change. “It’s literally a line that changes in the meal booking program,” L’Ange explains. Aside from that, new cardboard name covers have to be printed for the dining halls and a note of the new meal change just has to be made in the relevant documentation, which needs to be updated and reprinted annually whether this change occurs or not.

Okay, so what about the big things that can’t possibly be dismissed as small investments, like a paint job that costs R 200 000 to improve the appearance of a building on campus? L’Ange hands the relay baton over to Rhodes’ Vice Principal, Colin Johnson, who dashes off to address the issue for broader aspects of Rhodes.

“We replace things as they fall off the buildings,” he jokes. Still, he understands student concerns and explains that there’s no real need to worry. “We have a business plan for the University, and a clear idea of where we want to take it,” he says. “Part of that involves attracting new students.” Many of the appearance and identity changes that take place are part of a calculated effort to promote the culture and status of the institution – which, one may assume, translates to the idea that purchases aren’t made simply for the heck of it.

The Dean of Students, Vivian de Klerk, also comments on the campus aesthetics. “I think students would actually complain if the place looked tatty and ugly,” she says. “Part of this University is in its lovely campus and I think it’s conducive to happy, hardworking students.” She also believes that students aren’t aware of just how much power they have when it comes to voicing complaints or even changing policy. Something which she stresses often is the department’s open door policy, something which the students need to take advantage of if they have concerns.

There’s also the SRC, which has recently increased its involvement in the budget process. In fact, it’s currently putting forward the student perspective on a debate about the University’s resale account budget. In layman’s terms: some students cried bloody murder about the cost of photocopied notes from lecturers and actually helped spark a serious talk about it. Students at Rhodes have more power than they may credit themselves with, and if an individual has a complaint, he or she needs to know that such a complaint can be taken seriously in some pretty high-up places.

Still, some students are quite satisfied with the status quo. “I trust Rhodes to spend the money in a manner which is beneficial to all,” says Sandra Pienaar, second year BA. She believe that mistakes happen, but the University is doing just fine as is.

Given what’s been mentioned already, students shouldn’t have to panic about where their money goes – and if they do, they should know that they can voice their concerns. Today’s Rhodents are on a campus that has survived generations of learners – a campus that also prides itself on maintaining high academic, social and cultural standards. If that means spending some money on adjusting policy, then that’s what Rhodes will do.

If it means getting more fish … well, there’s always room for more fish.

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