Professor Jonathan Jansen File picture: Doctor Ngobo/ANA
Durban -  A  dire warning on the future of SA universities has been sounded by Professor Jonathan Jansen, former vice-chancellor of the University of Free State and now at the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University.

With the second release of his book, As By Fire, this week, Jansen said that forces undermining campuses are leading to the end of South African universities. The book was launched in July last year.

“It is the end of our universities as we know them. I have looked at forces which have brought down universities in Africa, including Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. 

“This includes chronic underfunding by the state, chronic instability on campuses and attacking the autonomy of universities where the state takes over the core functions. When these conditions prevail, it doesn’t take long for universities to collapse, 

“And with a president who says there’s free education, it is very difficult to predict a stable year ahead,” said Jansen. 

Unrest on campuses continues to simmer and President Jacob Zuma upped the ante on the eve of the ANC elective conference, when he announced that free education would be available in 2018 for “students currently enrolled in TVET colleges or university students from SA households with a combined annual income of up to R350 000.” 

This was quickly followed by the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) urging prospective students to arrive at campuses for registration, despite tertiary registration taking place via an online process. 

Across the country hopeful students have formed long queues outside tertiary institutions as the academic year opened this week and in Durban this was compounded with strikes by Unisa and Durban University of Technology staff. 

Negotiations to resolve the strikes at both institutions collapsed this week and and are due to continue next week.

Jansen’s book includes interviews with 11 vice-chancellors from the country’s top universities and he added that turmoil on the campuses will lead to the loss of paying students from the middle-class, resignations from highly qualified academic teaching staff and a decline in valuable research output.

“There will no longer be a vibrant academic culture,” he said. 

Highlighting that students do have legitimate concerns about the affordability of tertiary education, Jansen said that the NFSAS scheme to assist poorer students was simply not sufficient in terms of the “explosive growth” in the numbers and needs of students over the last 15 years. 

And looking ahead to the 2018 academic year, he said: “The students are not back yet in full force, but there is a constant rolling national protest of student demands. 

“We need a political leader in the country to settle down our public institutions. 

“A  lot depends on whether Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership is able to offer us some kind of respite. We need a political settlement between the leadership and student bodies. Don’t burn the house we live in,” he said. 

In the book, Jansen examines the issues at hand from the point of view of a vice-chancellor and, being a scholar at heart, he considers the social, economic, political, cultural, historical and economics within student activism. 

And while he has empathy for the power of the student voice, especially during the 2015 protest when there was also support by broader South Africa, Jansen is outspoken of activists unwillingness to engage in debate.

In his interviews with vice-chancellors such as Wits’ Professor Adam Habib, UCT’s Max Price, Rhodes’ Professor Sizwe Mabizela, challenges such as funding, housing, race and class come under the spotlight. 

As By Fire is published by NB Publishers in Cape Town.

The Independent on Saturday