Destructive students force varsity’s hand

It is becoming increasingly difficult for institutions of higher learning in South Africa to maintain the delicate balancing act of finding sustainable funding.

For 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.

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.

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 make financial concessions to accommodate affected students. Prof Poku relates how at UKZN, the concessions made towards students with historical debts amounted to over R1-billion.

At the UFS, apart from similar concessions, we also offered students allowances for food and books amounting to over R71-million this year, while they are waiting for their National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) subsidies to be released – a major impact on cash flow management.

Despite these gestures of goodwill, a small group of aggrieved students still went ahead with violent acts, causing millions of rand of damage on campus and creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.

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.

At the UFS, we have always been very accommodating towards protesting students 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 that could lead to expulsion. We need to send a clear message that blatant acts of criminality will simply not be tolerated on university campuses.

  • Prof Petersen is rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State

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