UNIVERSITY of Johannesburg deputy vice-chancellor Adam Habib has emerged as the top candidate for the position of vice-chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand. Incumbent Loyiso Nongxa, is to leave the post in May, after a 10-year stint.

It will fall to the new vice-chancellor to manage the tension between financial sustainability and a long-term vision of being a world-class institution.

The Wits senior appointments selection committee is set to table its report to the Wits university council on Friday. Comments by some members of the committee suggest Prof Habib is the preferred candidate for the post.

The university is also set for a shakeup in senior management positions, with the post of vice-chancellor (academic), to be advertised next year.

The post of vice-chancellor (finance and operations) has already been filled by incumbent dean of the faculty of humanities, Tawana Kupe. Prof Kupe assumes office next year.

Prof Habib, has already submitted his vision for Wits and has been through interviews, as have two other candidates: Yunus Ballim — who is Wits deputy vice-chancellor (academic), and Liesbeth Botha, the executive director of materials science and manufacturing in the senior management team of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

A candidate’s vision needs to build into Wits’ existing vision to 2022. The latter includes a push for enhancing Wits’ international reputation as a research institution, as well as lowering the staff-student ratio.

Along with this is raising the proportion of postgraduate students at a time when management and academics are deadlocked on a range of issues, including benchmarking academic standards, as well as research funding.

At the same time, Wits together with SA’s 22 other public universities, is set to see a nominal decrease in state funding of 1%, 2% and 3% over the next three years. Institutions are also under pressure not to increase student fees.

First on the agenda for the new vice-chancellor will be the tense labour relations at the institution. Wits academic and support staff this year twice engaged in one-day strikes.

Negotiations are expected to resume next year, and although academics suspended their strike, they are adamant their demands are reasonable and affordable.

Prof Habib said in an interview on Wednesday that both the University of Johannesburg and University of KwaZulu-Natal had reaped the benefits of encouraging productivity and research among academic staff.

Prof Habib said Wits would need to balance increasing undergraduate enrolment with teaching loads. The university would also need to focus on the shifting higher education landscape and possible changes to funding formulas, despite Wits’ strength in science and engineering — which are both priority areas for the government — which could see the institution benefit.

Prof Botha said finding a balance between undergraduate enrolment rates and academic pay and research time, could present opportunities for the institution.

Wits also needed to attract "third stream" income — such as state support for poor students, and policy incentives to ensure that talented students were retained for postgraduate studies.

Prof Ballim declined to comment until the process had been concluded.