It is becoming increasingly difficult for institutions of higher learning in South Africa to maintain the delicate balancing act of finding sustainable funding solutions amid mounting pressures caused by rapidly altering learning and teaching environments, dwindling government subsidies, and the massification of higher education. And uncontrolled, violent student protests might just be the final blow that sends many tertiary institutions over the precipice, writes Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.
There is no doubt that student protests have over the years played a vital part in South Africa’s journey towards and maturation as a democracy. During the anti-apartheid struggle, student organisations such as NUSAS, SASO and later SASCO kept South Africa’s human rights violations on the international agenda through unrelenting campaigns and protests. And more recently, the #FeesMustFall movement in 2015 and 2016 has raised important awareness around ensuring access to education for students from the lowest-earning households.
Transcending boundaries of legitimate protest
The recent spate of violent protests on some university campuses, however, seems to transcend the boundaries of what can rightfully be termed as ‘protest action’. When students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Durban University of Technology (DUT) caused severe physical damage and disrupted classes at the beginning of the year, UKZN Vice-Chancellor, Prof Nana Poku, condemned their actions in no uncertain terms as ‘organised crime’. And he is right. This kind of behaviour is nothing but opportunistic criminality in the guise of legitimate protest.
A few weeks after the violence erupted on campuses in KwaZulu-Natal, students on the University of the Free State (UFS) Qwaqwa Campus went on a similar rampage, throwing stones at protection officers, vandalising buildings, and raiding the university dining hall.
There are distinct differences between these acts and the majority of past student protests.
In most cases, current issues represent a much narrower interest than in the past, affecting only a certain section of the student population, and often revolving around the administrative processes concerning funding.
At UKZN, the main issue seems to have been students demanding to register even though they had historical debt. At the UFS Qwaqwa Campus, it was about a decision by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to pay accommodation allowances for students residing off campus directly to landlords and not to students themselves. Apart from affecting a relatively small number of students, the ‘fight’ was not per se with university management.
Universities South Africa (USAf) pointed out that many of the issues raised by students this year were actually sector challenges and fell outside the control of tertiary institutions. Regardless of this, institutions regularly bend over backwards in an attempt to find workable interim solutions and making financial concessions to accommodate affected students.
Prof Poku relates how at UKZN, the concessions made towards students with historical debts amounted to more than R1 billion. At the UFS, apart from similar concessions, we also offered students allowances for food and books amounting to more than R71 million this year, while they are waiting for their NSFAS subsidies to be released – a major impact on cashflow management. Despite these gestures of goodwill, a small group of aggrieved students still went ahead with violent acts, causing millions of rands of damage on campus and creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.
University campuses today are vastly different spaces from what they used to be in the 1970s and 1980s, as a result of drastic and far-reaching changes in the educational landscape over the past few decades. Access to higher education has opened up and is no longer restricted to high-income households.
The total number of students enrolled at higher education institutions increased by almost 70% between 2002 and 2020, growing to just more than one million in number. Coupled with that, tertiary institutions have gone through radical transformation processes, ensuring that they not only embrace diversity, but respect human rights and social justice through fair process and policy.
At the University of the Free State, for example, we have had well-considered, comprehensive transformation over several years in all spheres of operation, enabling us to become an institution where diverse people feel a sense of common purpose and where the symbols and spaces, systems and daily practices all reflect commitment to openness and engagement. We also have various initiatives to ensure that students are successful in their studies, ranging from tutorial programmes to language, writing, and psychological support.
Policies and structures are continuously being implemented and reviewed to embrace social justice in all its forms, with deliberate dialogue opportunities and avenues created for raising concerns and addressing them. At the UFS, student success is a social justice imperative. Great care is also taken to involve our student leadership in governance on all levels, with a high level of student participation in all UFS governing structures.
Despite all the different recourses available to them, and a genuine culture of participation and caring cultivated on our campuses, disgruntled splinter groups in the student body still routinely reach for the most destructive weapon in their arsenal of options, namely violent protests.
These protest actions also often seem to jump the gun, as they happen in tandem with and despite fruitful, progressive negotiations with elected student leaders. Not only is this incredibly frustrating – it disrespects the rights and wishes of the overwhelming majority of students, and completely challenges the notion of ‘negotiation and engagement in good faith’.
There are no winners in the wake of ill-considered, violent acts of vandalism. Offending students are no closer to a solution – in fact, they may find themselves suspended and in trouble with the law to boot. By disrupting classes and preventing access to campuses, they are effectively robbing their fellow students of the opportunity to work towards obtaining a qualification. Affected institutions are impacted in their ability to provide quality education to students and in fulfilling their wider society-focused mandate. On top of that, potential donors and investors in the South African higher education sector are discouraged.
The sustainability and very survival of higher education institutions are ultimately at stake, as especially small and medium-sized universities simply cannot continue to bear the financial and operational burden that each violent protest brings.
Tough reaction needed
It has become necessary to take a tough stance against offenders who perpetrate senseless acts of violence and place students and staff members in danger on our campuses. At the UFS, we have always been very accommodating towards protesting students, not only as a constitutional right, but our approach in dealing with student misconduct has a strong element of restorative justice. But we have decided to take a hard-line approach against the offenders in these latest acts of violence and destruction – opposing bail and instituting emergency disciplinary processes against them, resulting in immediate suspensions and sanctions which could lead to expulsion. We need to send a clear message that blatant acts of criminality will simply not be tolerated on university campuses.
We also appeal to political parties under whose banners many of these destructive activities are undertaken, to publicly condemn these acts and to call their members to order.
Respect a vital part of curriculum
Throughout the course of history, we have come to associate university campuses with arenas where free speech is encouraged, and social ills are pointed out. This role should be cherished, continued, and encouraged – ‘reclaiming’ back the university campuses as spaces for discourse. But equally important is the responsibility to use your right to freedom of expression in such a way that you do not violate the rights of other individuals or jeopardise the continued operation of the very institution you all form part of – and by implication, negatively affecting the wider interests of the society it serves.
The role of universities is, after all, not only to provide good workers and innovative thinkers for the job market. We need to cultivate good citizens, who can make a meaningful difference to society. Teaching and encouraging mutual respect should be a vital part of any university curriculum.
By letting criminality go unpunished and not speaking out to these acts, we are contributing towards a culture of entitlement, where people readily resort to criminal acts when they do not get what they believe they are entitled to. This cuts directly across what institutions for higher learning aim to achieve and bodes for a dangerous future.
– Francis Petersen is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.
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