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Wits Council calls on SA president to address higher education sector crisis

- Wits University

Statement from the Council of the University of the Witwatersrand:

The higher education sector in South Africa is in turmoil with ongoing student protests causing widespread disruptions and destruction. The focus of these protests is the unaffordability of higher education which is restricting access for a significant number of students. 

Access to higher education should not be the preserve of those who can afford it. At the same time, we cannot allow deterioration in quality. It is for this reason that the Council of the University of the Witwatersrand recently joined most other constituencies at the University in openly declaring its support to work towards the goal of free, fully-funded, quality, decolonised higher education. 

This goal must be considered within the broader context of the pervasive poverty, unemployment and inequality in our country. If one examines this context, it is clear that universities cannot be expected to achieve the goal of free, fully-funded, quality, decolonised higher education in isolation from other stakeholders, particularly government. 

The chronic underfunding of the higher education sector in the last two decades requires the immediate attention of those at the highest levels of government. 

We are deeply distressed by the proposed short-term funding levels. Our universities are a significant national priority. They are the only institutions that are capable of producing the high level skills that are required to advance innovation, tackle the challenges of the 21st century, and safeguard South Africa’s economy and its future. 

We are particularly distressed by the proposed funding for research-intensive universities, which we believe for a university like Wits will be 4% less than inflation next year. Our country needs high levels of investment in top-end research to create new knowledge that is relevant to society and that will enable us to participate in the global knowledge economy. This is also critical to enabling our universities to promote indigenous knowledge and its inclusion in curricula. 

One of the characteristics of world-class universities is the concentration of highly talented individuals, both students and staff. Universities are at risk of losing academic talent to the private sector and other countries if we cannot reward them adequately or create an environment that is conducive to learning, teaching and research.

The fact that numerous universities are unable to continue with the 2016 academic programme has immense consequences for the country. The unfortunate, but necessary and unavoidable presence of police and private security is a further tragedy. For these and many other reasons, it is imperative for stability to return to the sector. 

We note the efforts of the Minister of Higher Education and Training in trying to address this crisis. However, we are of the view that there is not sufficient appreciation of the fact that this is a national crisis of significant proportion, and that it therefore requires the President and his office to lead the thinking on resolutions. The inclusion of the National Treasury in the Ministerial Task Team is an important step in the right direction, but we believe that the President should be at the forefront of exploring options for the sustainable funding of higher education. 

The Council of the University of the Witwatersrand therefore calls on his Excellency, the President of the Republic of South Africa, Mr JG Zuma to urgently do the following

  1. Establish a multi-disciplinary, deliberative gathering that will explore sustainable funding options for higher education, which must ensure that no student who qualifies academically is excluded for financial reasons;
  2. Ensure that the gathering ultimately establishes clear timeframes and milestones; and
  3. Commit the necessary resources and capacity from government to ensure that the necessary work is undertaken expeditiously.

We also call on all relevant stakeholders, including Parliament, the private sector, civil society and others to join our request that public universities be adequately funded. We call on genuine student leadership to come forward and demonstrate real commitment to finding sustainable solutions. 

Our future, and that of future generations, is in our hands. Our inability to develop and support world-class universities today will have dire consequences tomorrow.”