UKZN refuses to drop charges against students

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UKZN Howard Campus INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS File photo: Gcina Ndwalane

Durban -

The University of KwaZulu-Natal will not drop charges of misconduct against four masters students for their “grossly inaccurate” open letter to its vice-chancellor, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba.

UKZN’s spokesman, Lesiba Seshoka, said on Monday that management was not given the opportunity “to engage” with the four students or to respond to the allegations made in the letter.

“Furthermore, the allegations in the letter are grossly inaccurate,” he said.

The university has been widely criticised for allegedly suppressing freedom of speech and censoring the students.

The four have been accused of defamation, acting against university policies, indecent behaviour and harming the reputation of the institution.

Lukhona Mnguni, Mnikeni Phakathi, Thembani Khumalo and Siyabonga Khumalo were told to appear before a disciplinary tribunal tomorrow to account for their open letter that was disseminated to students and the media.

The letter, which contained various allegations, was written after they had failed to convince the university management to extend the registration date to enable students to raise money for fees.

Regarding the claims over financial aid, Seshoka said UKZN had over the years awarded “substantial” financial aid to deserving students who met the academic requirements of the various degree programmes.

Assistance had been provided to financially disadvantaged students through loans, bursaries and scholarships, with R260 million being awarded to 6 500 students through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, Seshoka said.

A further R100m had been allocated by the university and the National Research Fund through bursaries and scholarships for this academic year. In addition, Makgoba had committed R325 000 from his discretionary funds to assist 100 students to register.

Seshoka said students had the “right to engage in intellectual discourse that encourages a robust and stimulating academic experience that fosters critical engagement”.

“The university has official structures through which students are encouraged to submit complaints and concerns that impede a fair, unbiased and just student experience,” he said.

“The university’s Students Representative Council (SRC) is the official statutory body through which grievances must be raised. The SRC members are bound by the codes and ethics of conduct that bind executive management and council.”

Seshoka said if students wanted to bypass the SRC they had to approach the university’s ombudsman for intervention.

But the four students said last night that internal structures, including the SRC, “had been utilised to our disappointment”.

“A plethora of issues were raised through the SRC and at times there was systematic institutional unresponsiveness to the issues raised – we are aware of this because we engaged with the SRC continuously,” they said.

The students denied their letter was inaccurate and/or defamatory.

“Instead the consistency of this line of argument without information to back it up is a deliberate attempt to discredit our open letter and cast it as having been ill-considered.”

Former UKZN lecturer, Nic Spaull, now an education researcher at Stellenbosch University, said it was strange for an institution that supported the notion of freedom of expression and independent thinking to take offence to a letter.

“We see these sort of letters all the time,” he said. “The university must engage the students by responding to it, rather than reacting so harshly. These are just dissatisfied students who have a right to freedom of expression.”

Spaull wrote on his website, www.nicspaull.com: “It makes me furious to see the management at UKZN trying to intimidate these students into compliance and, presumably, discourage future dissent. This kind of knee-jerk response smacks of fragile egos and deep insecurities.” He said universities had always been a “hotbed of critique and dissent”.

UKZN said it would not respond further on the matter. It would not say what sanction the four students faced if found guilty.

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