The Vice Chancellors of all Gauteng-based Universities today appealed to students, academics, professional and support staff, and parents to do everything within their power to ensure a smooth start to the 2016 academic year, underlining the importance of tertiary education as the foremost route to empowerment for individuals, families, and communities.
“Our job as Universities is the empowerment of the next generation of leaders for the South African economy, society, and governance through academic study leading to concrete, sought after qualifications. As the universities in South Africa’s economic heartland, we are aware of our responsibility to ensure that learning, teaching, and research can continue uninterrupted through the 2016 academic year, and we are appealing to all associated with the universities to make their contributions to achieving that goal,” said Prof Ihron Rensburg, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, and spokesman for the Gauteng Vice Chancellors.
The Gauteng Vice Chancellors underlined their unequivocal support for the quest for access to quality higher education for all as enshrined in the Constitution. They said they were uncompromising in their determination to defend the right of all students to a quality education, regardless of their economic or social standing. This was necessary for realising a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and economically and socially inclusive society.
The absolute condition for the universities to be able to play their role in the transformation of society and the empowerment of individuals was for learning, teaching, and research to take place unhindered. Damage to university property could never be a solution, but would only contribute to disempowering those most dependent on university facilities such as libraries, laboratories, and administration.
“While determined that teaching and learning should start and proceed as planned, we remain completely committed to the dialogue with our students started last year as together we search for long term solutions to the challenges facing higher education,” said Prof Rensburg. “The appointment of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry gives all of us – academics, students, administrators, support staff, and parents – the framework within which we can seek concrete solutions which are both workable in practice, and acceptable to all.”
Government, under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma and Minister Blade Nzimande, supported by the vice-chancellors, has made huge strides in addressing the issues and challenges facing universities which emerged at the end of 2015, said the Gauteng Vice Chancellors.
Following the report and recommendations from the Presidential Task Team on Funding for Higher Education, a total amount of almost R17 billion has been committed by government to support universities in managing the 0% fee increase in 2016, and addressing NSFAS shortfalls and outstanding student debt. In an environment of fiscal restraint, this was an exceptional achievement.
Universities, in turn, have also put in place their own institutional mechanisms to mobilise additional funds and to enhance support to financially needy students and their parents in order to create better access to higher education.
“We realise that many challenges remain, particularly for the so-called ‘missing middle’ group of students who are unable to access NSFAS funding, and who find it difficult to pay their own way,” said Prof Rensburg. “We are doing everything in our power to support this group in the short-term, and are working with government to improve this support in the medium and long term.”
The current funding model was based on fees. There are many other ways of funding higher education, the Vice Chancellors emphasised, and it is possible that the Presidential Commission may recommend a new model in the long-term.
The Gauteng Vice Chancellors said they were deeply concerned by the recent disruptions and violent protests linked to student registration processes at some of the province’s institutions. In most cases, these sporadic but sometimes violent events had been led by a small group of students. In some instances, they have been supported by the employees of service providers contracted by universities.
“We are however aware that the vast majority of students – actively encouraged by their parents – are keen for the academic year to get underway,” said Prof Rensburg. “All we are asking for, is for these students to be allowed to get on with it, while assuring all interested groups that the issues will continue to be at the top of our shared agenda.”
The Vice Chancellors called on all sectors of society, including parents, churches and civil society, to mediate, and to work with them to ensure that the higher education sector does not suffer long term damage. “Our higher education sector is one of the best functioning sectors on the continent, and we as a country cannot afford to destroy it,” said Prof Rensburg. “Our students certainly cannot afford to lose a year because a minority is determined to disrupt teaching and learning.”
All members of the university community have the right to protest, said the Vice Chancellors. Such protest must respect the constitutional rights of others to access higher education institutions in order to learn and work.
Any attempt to disturb the smooth running of the universities as they gear up for the new academic year should be rejected by anyone interested in the broadest possible access to higher learning as a route to transformation and intergenerational empowerment in South Africa. As places of research, innovation, learning and teaching which rest upon the fundamental premise that universities must always be a place of open debate, the Gauteng universities will continue to take all necessary steps to ensure the safety, security, and freedom of movement and debate of all its people.
This means that the universities will continue to ensure that anything which can endanger students, staff and the buildings which create the environment in which they study, teach, and work, will be prevented.
“We urgently appeal to all students and other role-players to respect the rights of others to access our universities, to act responsibly through constructive engagement, and to desist from any form of violent or disruptive protest action which places our community and facilities at risk, and jeopardises the entire higher education system in its task of empowering the next generation and the country,” said the Vice Chancellors. “We call in particular on leaders of political parties to demonstrate leadership and help to stabilise higher education for 2016.”
This statement is issued by the vice-chancellors and rectors of the public universities in Gauteng