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‘Universities must be spaces for debate’

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Protests over racial issues such as statues and other symbols of the country’s divided history, as well as tuition and student housing, have spread at universities across South Africa. At some universities, students protested the use of Afrikaans as an official language, frustrated that decades after the end of minority-white rule of the country more change was not evident. Fees protests have also become a daily occurrence with students now demanding free higher education.

Last week at the University of Cape Town, students destroyed university property following a spat with police over a shack that was erected on the upper campus to highlight the limited housing availability at university residences.

During the budget speech earlier this week Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan allocated a budget of R5.7 billion for higher education in the 2016/17 financial year. The minister noted that the higher education budget will address the university funding shortfall as a result of President Jacob Zuma’s announcement last year that university fees will not be increased this year across the state’s 26 institutions.

However, Dr Russell Ally executive director of the development and alumni department at the University of Cape Town, says that you cannot discuss the amount outside of what the demands are and what the realities are at universities.

“The demands of the Fees Must Fall movement has actually expanded to free higher education (and) the amount in the budget doesn’t actually go that far so there is obviously going to be dissatisfaction,” Dr Ally explained.

“The more important question is whether the state actually is in a position to provide free tertiary education and whether under the present circumstances free tertiary education is actually realistic.”

“It (budget allocation) has gone a long way, but many of the underlying issues still remain and it doesn’t make good the shortfall that universities are going to face although it makes a huge contribution to the universities finances,” Dr Ally went further.

Further north at least three South African universities have been closed this week after a new wave of student protests that saw buildings torched over high tuition fees and allegations of racism.

“There is a lot of anger and a lot of frustration. But it doesn’t justify the burning of buildings and it doesn’t justify arson and it doesn’t justify criminality,” says Dr Ally.
In a statement released by the University of Cape Town, university management addressed the importance of keeping the university open as a space for debate.

“We are hoping now that sense is going to prevail; you can protect buildings as much as you want to, you can have private security, you can have police, you can have cameras, but if there are people that are determined to burn buildings and if not buildings then other assets such as motor vehicles people will find a way to do that so we need to move away from this idea that we can prevent this from actually happening by simply having more security and by using more force,” Dr Ally continued.

“The only way we can prevent this from happening is by having a constructive engagement on the issue and hoping that the students who have very legitimate demands and their grievances are very real and their frustrations are very real that they also come to their senses and realise that this kind of destructive behaviour is also not in their long term interests because at some point we have to sit around a table and sort these things out.”

Earlier in the year, Minister for Higher education Blade Nzimande revealed that government would have to fork out R150 million due to damage to property at universities. This amount could be much higher now as universities all over the country face tantamount of damage to property.

The minister said the country cannot afford more damage to institutional assets, adding that the cost of the security to protect the functioning of the education system is exorbitant.

“We are going to have to pay for all that has been destroyed and that is going to take resources away from where the resources really need to go which is to bursaries to financial aid to sorting out debt to paying for lecturers for infrastructure,” Dr Ally expressed.

When asked whether UCT would be shut down if violent protests were to continue the director had this to say.

“The safety and security of staff and students is paramount and if ever you reach a situation where life is at risk where safety and security is at risk then of course it would be irresponsible not to take every measure to put that in place and ensure that that is actually is the situation,” says Dr Ally.

“So we assess the situation on a daily basis and we make our decisions based on those decisions.” VOC

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