UKZN: Disruptions will not dictate our future
Over 85% of our students are registered and ready to return to class - so why do the disruptions and violence continue?
For the past month, our university has been plagued by disruptions, violence and damage to property in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. We are caught in repeating cycles of action and reaction, driving all of us - staff and students alike - into hardened positions and wasteful skirmishes, at a time when we desperately need to face the future rather than replay tactics that undermine the university and alienate us one from the other.
Our collective hearts skipped a beat when the footage of Professor Erwin Br"uning, one of our distinguished elderly scholars, was assaulted on our campus. No fair-minded person would ever find that acceptable and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms. It is an appalling situation that a small minority of individuals are defying rational arguments and continue with demands that management has shown in great detail cannot possibly be met; not least because they are against institutional sustainability and current government policy on fully subsidised higher education.
In addition to the estimated 31 million rands worth of damage to university property and the disruptions to our academic programmes, UKZN's reputation and standing, both national and international, are also suffering. This will make it all the more difficult to restore, let alone advance the interests of our students. Vitriolic attacks against the university in the press and on social media seriously misrepresent the conditions under which the university operates and the very considerable financial support we offer our students.
The facts are as follows:
UKZN operates in a region with two economic spectrums - one of economic wealth and vibrancy; and another of intense poverty and underdevelopment. Seventy-eight percent of our student population comes from households with incomes below R350 000 per annum. We have a proud history of embracing the least well-off members of our community, offering the largest possible number of qualified students a place to study, regardless of their financial background.
As a result, our student debt at the end of December 2019 stood at R1.7 billion. In spite of this, we have continued to implement processes (through financial clearance concessions) that effectively ensure no single student of the university is required to pay 100% of their debt in full prior to registration. When compared to other public institutions in South Africa, the UKZN registration and historic debt processes are among the most enabling for students.
In addition, our financial clearance concessions are the most substantial - at a cash flow cost to UKZN in excess of R1 billion. The payments required from students towards their debt are among the lowest, ranging from R10 000 to R45 000 per student, with more than 60% of all our students paying less than R10 000 towards their debt and 67% making no payments at all for registration fees because they are funded by NSFAS and other sponsors.
But the university is being confronted with demands that we write off the debt and provide free education to these 78% of students. Were we to accede to this demand, it would plunge our institution into a financial crisis so deep that we would be forced to close our doors to thousands an - outcome that will be detrimental to the university, the communities we serve, our economy and our country.
Importantly, if the university were to accede to this demand, it would be tantamount to offering a level of free education that is beyond current government policy. UKZN does not receive government support to that level. It could not possibly be implemented without imperilling the university's financial sustainability. If as an institution we also agree to the student demand not to enforce academic exclusions for poor performance, then we would be failing in our duty of care to protect the value of our degrees and awards. No university of standing anywhere in the world could agree to this.
Because we have worked long and hard to ensure even our most disadvantaged students can register and succeed, the current round of 2020 registrations undercuts the distortions and untruths that have erupted alongside the disruptions and violence. So, with more than two weeks before our registration period closes, our undergraduate registration stands at 95%, with post-graduate recruitment at 69% - and both are ahead of our registration figures the same period last year. Thus, the overwhelming majority of our students (85%) are registered and ready to go to class. The small number fuelling violence are not enabling these young men and women - they are doing quite the opposite.
When these figures are taken in context, it is difficult to understand the violence, burning, intimidation and criminality taking place on our campuses. We implore all members of the community not to facilitate the perpetrators of these crimes; and we request your assistance in bringing them to justice. The violence we have witnessed in the last month is not only self-defeating - it is also a colossal act of self-harm. It is only making matters worse and pushing the university ever closer to the brink of financial and academic ruin. The safety and security of students and staff is of paramount importance.
Since the disruptions began, we have had many heartening interactions with all stakeholders, students, staff and our public stakeholders. It is certain that we all hold the common position that our university is a national asset and whatever happens inside our university affects not just our province but also our country. It also has an impact on the life of all other higher learning institutions in our country. It impacts on the everyday life of the majority of our students - the ones intent on learning. It affects our economy. It affects business and investment in our region and country.
UKZN's leadership bodies have taken stock of the situation, looked at it from all sides and with a deep understanding for all our students. We understand that a small group of individuals wants to continue with this level of intense conflict. Despite this, we will continue to engage with the student leadership and other key stakeholders in a robust, transparent and fair manner. We will continue to take decisions in the current and long-term best interests of our staff and students and those who continue to support our institution.
Professor Nana PokuVice-Chancellor and PrincipalUniversity of KwaZulu-Natal