Pretoria – Vice Chancellors from Gauteng universities have appealed to all in the university system to allow the 2016 academic year to get off to a good start.
The call was made on Monday during a media briefing where Vice Chancellors from Gauteng based universities gave an update on the current protests at higher education institutions in the province.
The Vice Chancellors appealed to students, academics, professional and support staff and parents to do everything in their power to ensure a smooth start to the 2016 academic year. They underscored 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,” said the Vice Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and spokesperson for the Gauteng Vice Chancellors, Professor Ihron Rensburg.
Rensburg said as Vice Chancellors of universities in South Africa’s economic heartland, they are acutely aware of their responsibility to ensure that learning, teaching and research can continue uninterrupted through the 2016 academic year.
He appealed to all associated with the universities to make their contributions to achieve that goal.
Rensburg said the Vice Chancellors 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 have 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. 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,” said Rensburg.
He said the higher education sector is one of the best functioning sectors in the continent and the country cannot afford to destroy it.
“Our students certainly cannot afford to lose a year because a minority is determined to disrupt teaching and learning.”
While acknowledging that all members of the university community have the right to protest, Rensburg said 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 universities as they gear up for the new academic year should be rejected by anyone interested in the broadest possible access to higher learning, he said.
Rensburg said as places of research, innovation, learning and teaching, universities must always be a place of open debate.
The Vice Chancellors also committed that Gauteng universities will continue to take all the necessary steps to ensure the safety, security and freedom of movement of all.
“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,” said Rensburg.
Opening the doors of learning
The Gauteng Vice Chancellors reiterated their unequivocal support for the quest for access to quality higher education for all, as enshrined in the Constitution. They said they are uncompromising in their determination to defend the right of all students to a quality education, regardless of their economic or social standing.
Rensburg said that while determined that teaching and learning should start and proceed as planned, they remain completely committed to dialogue with students which was started last year. He said they are dedicated to finding long term solutions to the challenges facing higher education.
“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 that are both workable in practice and acceptable to all.”
The Vice Chancellors acknowledged that the leadership of President Jacob Zuma and Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande — supported by the Vice Chancellors — has made huge strides in addressing the issues and challenges facing universities.
Following the report and recommendations from the Presidential Task Team on Funding for Higher Education, nearly R17 billion has been committed by government to support universities in managing the 0% fee increase in 2016, and addressing National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) shortfalls and outstanding student debt.
The Gauteng Vice Chancellors noted that in an environment of fiscal restraint, this was an exceptional achievement.
Rensburg said universities 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. 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.”
He said the current funding model is based on fees.
“There are many other ways of funding higher education… and it is possible that the Presidential Commission may recommend a new model in the long term,” said Rensburg.