EDUCATION lies at the centre of South Africa's transformation and is critical to its prosperity. Increasingly, the production of relevant postgraduate degrees is recognised as essential to a country's development.
Several of South Africa's 23 universities are in turmoil, but people should pay careful attention when the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), one of our oldest and most respected tertiary education institutions, is heading rapidly towards dispute and disruption.
On Thursday, Wits academics and support staff will be marching in protest against management's refusal to engage with our concerns. In a symbolic act of warning, they will be showing management yellow cards as the procession makes its way below the university's Senate House.
Measured, colourful and creative this may be, but the implications are alarming; the teaching project at Wits, at the heart of our endeavours to educate and advance our country, is about to be brought to a halt. An initial one-day strike is set for August 2.
The Academic Staff Association of Wits University (Asawu), with more than 700 academic members, has not taken this decision lightly.
Most of us have PhDs and are the products of elite South African and foreign universities. We are professionals and mentors of the brightest cohorts of young South African and African students, who will build our country's and our continent's future.
To disrupt the education of our students is a last resort.
That we have embarked on this path is a clear sign that academics have had enough of management running our institution into the ground.
Despite copious bureaucratic plans aimed at making Wits one of the top 100 universities in the world, Wits's standing in international rankings has fallen.
The uncomfortable truth is that this decline has been dramatic. Between 2007 and last year, we fell more than 100 places in the QS World University Rankings.
An important value in scholarship is to acknowledge uncomfortable truths. Only if we recognise realities can the situation be improved.
In this case, there is an obvious starting point: stop doing what isn't working. Do something different.
A significant problem at Wits is that the most important part of the university has been forgotten: its employees.
The human resources department has been sidelined within the university, a situation best encapsulated by its reporting line - to the finance department.
This doesn't make any sense for an institution that is, perhaps more than any other, dependent on its human capital if it is to succeed.
But it does help explain why Wits's management has prioritised pushing paper targets from on high (its offices are on the 11th floor of Senate House) over supporting academics in their attempts to educate our youth.
Asawu fully recognises that academics have many obligations to society.
As professionals, we need to deliver quality education and to conduct relevant research that engages with the needs of our society.
Give us the facilities and the resources and we will do our utmost to meet these responsibilities. Unfortunately, management's approach has been quite the opposite; academic workloads have been increased dramatically, salaries neglected, research funding limited, and support services have been allowed to stagnate.
Universities are often seen as ivory towers, but that misses the point that they are also workplaces. Workplaces of a special kind, but still workplaces.
And, if they are to deliver what is needed, there has to be competitive remuneration, capable management and the right tools for the job.
The protest and, if this is not heeded, strike, that Asawu members will embark on is about these issues.
They are issues that affect all of us who believe in a better South Africa.
Wits employees are showing management the yellow card, but this warning is of concern beyond Wits. We cannot continue to see tertiary education run without concern for what makes it tick; academics and those who support us in our daily task of educating the youth for a better future for all.
. Dickinson is the president of Asawu.