SA varsities on a knife’s edge
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Cape Town - South Africa’s higher education system was standing at the edge of a precipice and could implode, Rhodes vice-chancellor Dr Sizwe Mabizela has warned.
He and his Wits counterpart, Professor Adam Habib, said they were extremely worried, nervous and anxious about spill-over violence from UCT.
They were speaking on the sidelines of the parliamentary hearings on the Higher Education Amendment Bill where Habib had addressed the National Assembly’s higher education committee on behalf of 26 universities, saying the sector was “facing an incredibly difficult moment that could turn into a permanent crisis”.
“It’s going to imperil our higher education system if we don’t deal with it.
“There’s a real danger that our higher education system might just implode.
“Once it implodes, to rebuild it, will take generations. We are at a critical moment in history,” said Mabizela.
He said like UCT, Rhodes University was facing an accommodation crisis as a result of the zero percent fee increase this year.
Students who previously lived off campus, were wanting to return to Rhodes residences, which were now cheaper than living in student digs.
The university had also enrolled more students than it could accommodate in line with a Higher Education directive that students not be turned away based on their inability to pay fees.
Habib said extra security had been deployed at the Wits campus two weeks ago, as the university keeps a watchful eye on potentially violent flare-ups.
Last October, the Wits campus was shut down as students of the #FeesMustFall movement went on the rampage.
Similar student protest action ensued at tertiary institutions across the country soon afterwards.
“We are watching what’s happening at UCT with heightened awareness.
“We just find it unacceptable behaviour and if we do not deal with this problem, we will destroy the higher education system.
“The demands are legitimate, it’s how you do it,” Habib said.
Mabizela said he feared the violence witnessed at UCT could spillover to Rhodes University.
“I’m extremely nervous, because whatever happens in one part of our higher education system is likely to impact on the entire sector.
“It probably won’t be long before our students want to do something similar.”
Mabizela said the violence at UCT was antithetical behaviour to an institution of higher learning and could not be condoned.
“Violence, the destruction of property and threatening other people have no place.
“No one has a right to violate another person’s right.”
Habib and Mabizela said the problems facing university students could not be resolved by universities alone.
“The issues of access and the affordability of higher education are matters of great concern especially for the poor and the working class, and we need to do something about it.
“It’s a societal issue and we just do not have that type of resources,” said Mabizela.
Habib agreed. These are systemic challenges. No university in this country can resolve the inequality crisis in our society.
“No university can resolve that there isn’t sufficient accommodation.
“To blame that on a single institution is unsustainable,” he said.
Mabizela warned that if students didn’t change their attitudes towards addressing the fees and accommodation problems besetting universities, the entire sector was at risk of collapse.
“We are really at a tipping point. Students have to come on board and be willing to engage in a constructive way.
“We believe the problems should be addressed through proper engagement, open debate and discussion.
“We believe the majority of our students want to do that,” said Mabizela.