Are South African universities under siege?


2019 is the year of the national general elections in South Africa – 8 May is when South Africans will have an opportunity to vote and to impact change, hopefully for the better.  But the beginning of 2019 saw the resurfacing of student protests, mainly driven by issues of registration, challenges associated with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), student accommodation, safety of students (off-campus), insourcing, and various other issues influenced by local institutional context. 

Our Constitution promotes protest, but emphasises the peaceful nature thereof, and that it should not infringe on the rights of others or damage property.  However, the protests experienced by the majority of higher-education institutions in South Africa in 2019 was exactly the opposite – disruption of classes, intimidation and victimisation, disrespect and often destruction of property.  A notion or approach of almost entitlement, even if the university management was willing to engage and was constantly open to assess ways and means to resolve these issues.  The drive for these protests was short-term gains, totally divorced from the long-term implications on the institution’s welfare.  This puts the university management under enormous pressure, sometimes feeling exposed and alone in ensuring that the institution remains sustainable – financially, as well as from an infrastructure and human resource perspective.

There is no doubt that the upcoming elections are used for political lobbying, tactical manoeuvring, and undermining to demonstrate political muscle – all playing out on our university campuses and to be managed by university vice-chancellors (VCs) and their executives.

Are universities not the pillars of knowledge in society, the providers of human capital and new knowledge to ‘lubricate’ our economy, the delivery of the next generation of professionals who will shape how our society, or a new South African citizenship should look like?  If this is the case, who are protecting our universities, who is standing with our VCs and university executives to ensure that our universities remain the beacon of hope for generations to come?  What is expected of VCs and university management in situations where there is a continual push for more, and if the response is not positive or immediate, protests, and in most instances violent and criminal behaviour. My personal view is not to securitise or militarise our campuses, but to resolve these issues through continuous engagement – but what if protests becomes violent and criminal?  What if disruptions challenge or threaten students, staff, infrastructure, and the academic project?  Student leaders seem to have forgotten the engagement with university leadership through a principle of ‘give and take’, always balancing short-term wins with the long-term sustainability and growth of the university.

Although universities often have their own internal disciplinary processes, these are slow, and the transgressors are often repeat offenders.  The sanctions are also in many cases restorative – which I believe it should, but to what end?

We have seen how weak leadership, corrupt practices, and inadequate government funding have had a detrimental effect on the overall state of universities in the rest of the continent.  This has led to the outflow of excellent academics from the continent to elsewhere on the globe – a loss for the university and the continent!  Universities, although resilient, are also fragile as a system.  The protests associated with the #Rhodes and #FeesMustFall movements, together with the continued protests in 2019, run the risk of putting South African universities on a similar trajectory.  A fragile university system, when broken, will take decades to be restored.

Therefore, if universities are important institutions for society and the country, should there not be more concerted efforts from government and society to ensure that our universities remain strong and competitive? Although I do not offer a specific solution per se, should government, together with university leadership, staff, and students not be more vocal, thinking of a mechanism to curb and/or disallow immediate disruptions and the breakdown of infrastructure, and show visible support to university leadership in an effort to continue the academic project?  Our universities are performing extremely well against global counterparts, keeping in mind the current (and the past 10 years) South African economic growth and investment constraints with respect to infrastructure, research, and high-level scientific equipment – even a more critical argument to protect these national assets.

I am not for a moment belittling the issues raised by students and student leaderships – in fact, most, if not all of these issues, are legitimate.  I can understand the frustrations of the students – the slow pace of transformation, social integration, and often the lack of urgency in executing agreed decisions within the higher-education sector.  However, I am questioning the type of reaction or action exhibited by the students if, for similar legitimate reasons (through proper engagements), student demands cannot be completely met by university leaders.

In the final analysis, South Africa needs strong universities which are competitive – the country needs appropriate skills to enable and support the economy.  Also, universities need to listen to the student voice – deal with their concerns in a fair and socially-just manner; but as a sector with all its stakeholders, we need to ultimately respect the academic project and the infrastructure (physical and human) which support it.  We cannot afford party-political dynamics to ‘abuse’ the university campus in a way that can destroy the fibre of our higher-education system.  This will be catastrophic for South Africa, and I believe for the continent.

I call on government, voices in society, fellow students, student leadership, and staff to support university management openly, pro-actively and firmly, so that our universities remain places of intellectual engagement and discovery, places where different views are respected and heard, and by ‘jealously guarding’ the institutions as ‘country resources’, responding to all stakeholders’ concerns in a fair and just manner. 

It is only then that universities ‘regain’ their rightful place in society, educating the next generation of scholars and professionals, advancing new knowledge, and purposefully disseminate and apply these to society – contributing to ‘lubricating the economy’ and to the betterment of the quality of life of our people!

Professor Francis Petersen is the Rector and Vice-Chancellor for the University of Free State.