Universities unite in push to complete academic year

Amid ongoing threats to shut down the sector, and in the absence of a long-term plan to fund higher education, vice-chancellors of South Africa's 26 public universities last week issued a public "call to action", imploring all South Africans to work with universities to ensure the successful completion of the academic year.

Under the banner of Universities South Africa, university vice-chancellors “speaking as one” published a statement on 23 October calling on student political leaders not to “sacrifice the academic project on the altar of narrow interests, party political agendas, and to desist from making demands that universities cannot possibly fulfil”.

Damage to property

Raising concerns over the violence that has attended many of the demonstrations, the statement noted that protests over the past year have had a "devastating impact" with the cost to replace damaged infrastructure likely to run into a "figure in excess of R1 billion [US$72 million]".

In addition, the statement warned of the “very serious consequences” of a national shutdown.

"On the one hand the abandonment of the 2016 academic year will delay the entry of more than 180,000 graduates into the workplace,” it said.

This would include 1,500 medical graduates who would be placed as interns in January in public hospitals. “The same is true for teachers, engineers, social workers, psychologists and so on," it stated.

The statement also touched on the impact on incoming matriculants who would have to postpone their entry into university to accommodate university students having to write exams in the new year.

Possible brain drain

Concerns have been raised in the local media about a potential brain drain as university academics and students eye more stable institutional environments outside of South Africa, or within the private sector.

Despite last Sunday’s call by vice-chancellors, thousands of students and supporters in Cape Town marched to Parliament last Wednesday where they handed over a memorandum outlining their demands, the main one being free higher education, to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan who was due to deliver his medium-term budget policy statement.

According to news reports, one of the protesters warned Gordhan that universities would be shut down if the demands were not met. Police used stun grenades and rubber bullets to disperse students after the protest became heated and a burning coffin bearing a photograph of Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande was flung towards the police lines.

Inside Parliament, where the noise of the conflict on the streets was audible, Gordhan announced the allocation of a further R9 billion (US$651 million) to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS.

He said universities and students will receive an additional R17 billion (US$1.2 billion) over the next three years. This includes R7.6 billion to universities to compensate for the fees freeze for students whose families earn less than R600‚000 a year (the ‘missing middle’) and the R9.2 billion to bolster the NSFAS.

No roadmap

Gordhan’s statement cautioned that "a roadmap" was still needed to fully finance the costs of study for poor students – a deficiency also highlighted by Belinda Bozzoli, shadow minister of higher education and training for the official opposition, who called the budget allocation a “stop-gap measure”. In a statement the Democratic Alliance MP said the public needed reassurance that “in a year from now they will not be dealing with the same issues once again in this kind of ad hoc manner”.

Without a clear long-term plan on the cards, universities have determined that no further academic time should be lost and have put in place measures to ensure that the academic courses and end-of-year examinations go ahead.

In order to complete their programmes, universities have turned to alternative teaching methods, including online services and off-campus lecture venues.

In a bid to keep the institution running, the University of Cape Town last Tuesday secured an interim high court interdict which, among other measures, interdicts students and protesters from "taking or attempting to take any action that obstructs or frustrates the university from doing its job and students from pursuing their studies”.

In a statement ‘From the VC’s desk’, UCT Vice-chancellor Max Price said the university had “no alternative” but to turn to the courts.

Safety concerns

“The unlawful action by some of the protesters has left us no other option. We are deeply concerned for the safety of staff and students alike (including protesters) and we are extremely worried that the violence and unlawfulness that some protesters are engaging in presents a real risk to life and limb. The interim interdict also prohibits the disruption of exams, libraries, research and other laboratories, and the ability of any of the university’s employees to do their work,” he wrote.

In the same statement, Price suggested the formation of an Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission on campus “to help us to hear and acknowledge the hurt and anger on all sides”. While the terms of the commission were still to be developed in consultation with stakeholders, he said it could “consider how protests have been expressed and dealt with; discriminatory and hostile aspects of our institutional culture; gender and harassment issues; and much more”.

Other institutions around the country have also adjusted their timeframes to accommodate examinations. As part of its “academic recovery programme” for 2016, the University of KwaZulu-Natal has extended the academic calendar by almost four weeks, scheduling examinations to start at the end of November.

The University of the Witwatersrand announced on Friday through social media that it had completed the lecture schedule for the 2016 academic year. The university has been providing daily updates on its official Facebook page aimed at keeping students informed of security measures and disruptions, has also offered counselling services to students and has negotiated mobile data services from the four major mobile operators to enable students to access academic material electronically until the end of the year.

The new deal gives students free access to the institutional e-learning platform, libraries, and other essential services.

High levels of stress

Following the mid-week torching of three buildings – two exam venues and a tennis clubhouse – Rhodes University announced it would give all students the option of writing their exams at the end of this year or in January and February of 2017. In a statement, the university said the decision was taken “in acknowledgement that many students are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety because of events experienced on campus in recent weeks”.

Concerns over safety also precipitated a decision by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town to introduce off-campus classes, with examinations set to be written at Wingfield Military Base.

At the Central University of Technology in the Free State, formal lectures and assessments were suspended on 19 October. In a communique dated 18 October, Acting Vice-chancellor Professor Henk de Jager said campus disruptions, the petrol bombing of two university buildings in Bloemfontein, the raiding of a cafeteria and victimisation of staff and students had necessitated the move.

However, the institution remained “determined to complete the academic year and that no student will be deprived as a result of… alternative arrangements.”

He said academic staff would engage with students via the university’s digital platform, and electronic and social media, about alternative arrangements, assignments and assessments to ensure that the syllabus of each module was completed by 4 November followed by main assessments on 7 November as planned.

Undergraduate students who did not have access to computer facilities and the internet off campus, or need a place to study could use the Student Academic Support Centres, Library and Information Services and the 24-hour study areas, he said.

Lack of exam preparation

Meanwhile, post-doctoral education researcher Nic Spaull, based at Stellenbosch University, suggested that more students may be likely to fail their final exams as a result of the disruptions.

He said while the last two months of protests did not have a major bearing on an entire degree, it may affect the ability of some students to pass the year.

In a recent interview with Radio 702, Spaull said: "We might see higher rates of failure because students haven’t had the same level of preparation just before the exam and as we know that’s likely to affect students that are marginal or borderline students the most – and often those students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and don’t have the money to continue with their studies."

While getting students to examinations has become a priority for the sector, the question of a long-term equitable funding plan for higher education remains unanswered, a situation Spaull believes is fuelling the militancy of student protests.

Source of militancy

“The militancy that’s coming from the student movement is because no proposal has been put forward by government that genuinely does address the ‘missing middle’ problem – that those students cannot afford university.

"And so even Nzimande’s proposal to put an additional R2.5 billion to cover the fee increase from 2015-17 doesn’t address the underlying issue that 2015 fees were unaffordable to the vast majority of students attending university...

“Until we start hearing these proposals coming out from government that are financially workable given our budget constraints… we are not going to see an abatement of the protests because there has not been an answer to the underlying moral issue which is that we cannot be excluding poor students simply because they can’t pay,” he said.

Also among the losers are the universities themselves. As last week’s vice-chancellors’ statement notes, violent protest undermines “the very essence of what a university is about".

While acknowledging the steps taken by Nzimande to defuse the crisis, the statement calls on government to renew its efforts to decisively, clearly and substantively address the issues raised in the #FeesMustFall campaign and "provide our universities with the assurance that they will be havens of peace, a condition fundamental to the academic enterprise".