Universities in South Africa fear that continuing student protests imperil the reputation of the country’s higher education system, with the flight of leading academics a primary concern.
Violent demonstrations against tuition fee increases have spanned five weeks, with more than 500 students arrested and many institutions forced to close or suspend classes.
Damage to property has been widespread, while police use of stun grenades, rubber bullets and tear gas has become commonplace. While the situation is calmer than it was, last week saw serious attacks on security guards at the University of Cape Town and lectures disrupted at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Institutions such as Cape Town and the University of Pretoria have opted to conduct much of their teaching online in order to complete the 2016 academic year, and further unrest is feared when institutions finalise their tuition fees for 2017, or when the government announces long-awaited plans to reform the country’s student finance system.
Martin Hall, emeritus professor in Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business and former vice-chancellor of the University of Salford, described the situation on South African campuses as “pretty desperate”.
“Our academic year is coming to a close so examinations have to start in the first or second week of November, and there are desperate attempts to save these examinations,” he said. “There are daily running battles across the campuses and we are not really seeing a reduction in student pressure.”
University leaders believe that if a settlement can be reached swiftly, long-term damage to the country’s reputation as Africa’s leading higher education system can be averted. But there is widespread acknowledgement that if a solution cannot be found, many researchers may choose to leave.
“For the brightest and best there are always ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that determine where they go, and this could be a push factor that could be tough to resist if this disruption continues,” he said. “If they feel intimidated and unsafe, they may well feel [that] this is not the place [where] they want to proceed with their academic careers.”
Max Price, vice-chancellor of Cape Town, said that he was particularly concerned about the impact on international student recruitment but agreed that it would be difficult to stem academic flight if the violence of recent weeks became a “pattern”.
“One of the things that researchers will need to do is consider the stability of the university environment and, to the extent that it has not been stable for the last while, I am sure it represents a risk of brain drain,” he said.
The immediate trigger for the protests was the announcement by Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s higher education minister, that universities would be permitted to increase their fees by up to 8 per cent, with a commitment that the government would cover the costs of the rise for poor and middle-income students. This failed to satisfy students who believe that higher education should be free.
However, the unrest should be seen in the wider context of anger that South Africa remains a deeply divided society more than two decades on from the end of apartheid, and black students’ concern that elite universities remain unwelcoming to them despite some changes such as the removal of Cape Town’s statue of Cecil Rhodes last year.
Mukovhe Masutha, a former president of Wits’ Student Representative Council who is now studying for a PhD at the University of Bath, said that the current protests “declare a generational war to all those who push forward the commodification of higher education”.
“If this revolving door of exclusion is not disrupted, the majority of South African youth will follow in their parents’ footsteps of submission to a humiliating system,” he said. “We see the act of excluding the majority of young people from higher education as [an] act of reinforcing the cycle of poverty and safeguarding the socio-economic legacy of apartheid.”
The report of a presidential commission on higher education funding has been much delayed and Dr Price, who was allegedly punched by a student during a protest on campus, said that the government should consider abandoning this in order to deliver firm proposals “in a matter of months”.
“Part of the reason why we are stuck in this space is that there is not a plan on the table for a policy of what the government’s intention is in respect of fees and funding,” he said. “If a public indication was made that fees for [poor and middle-income] students would come down or be subsidised through loans or a bursary system, that could make a significant difference.”
A history of violence: key events
After the abolition of a planned increase in tuition fees in 2015, South African universities warn that they face financial crisis if their funding is not significantly increased in 2017. Protests against an expected tuition fee increase force the suspension of teaching at several institutions, including the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Blade Nzimande, the higher education minister, says that universities will be allowed to increase their fees by up to 8 per cent in 2017, but commits to covering the costs of the rise for students from low- and middle-income families. Protests begin at the University of the Witwatersrand, with police making 31 arrests.
Demonstrations spread across the countries’ campuses, forcing the suspension of teaching at many institutions. Campuses face a spate of arson attacks while police increasingly use stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets.
Wits says that it is investigating the death of a cleaner who died after inhaling fumes from fire extinguishers that were set off by protesters.
Max Price, the University of Cape Town’s vice-chancellor, warns that continuing protests may leave the institution unable to complete the academic year, and students unable to graduate.
In a poll of more than 20,000 Wits students, more than three-quarters say that they want to return to class. Protests continue at Wits and other institutions despite attempts to resume teaching.
Attempted murder charges are laid against protesters at Cape Peninsula University of Technology after an administration and security building is set alight and two security guards are locked inside. Meanwhile, Tyrone Pretorius, vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, is held against his will by protesters for several hours.
Protesters and police clash on the streets of Braamfontein in Johannesburg, forcing Wits to impose a 10pm curfew. A day later, former Student Representative Council president Mcebo Dlamini is arrested.
Teaching resumes at Cape Town, but mainly through online means. The University of Pretoria adopts the same approach.
Assault charges are laid against two Cape Town students after Max Price is allegedly punched during an altercation. Meanwhile, two security guards are attacked on the campus, with one having a rock dropped on his head from the upper storey of a building.
Lesego Benjamin Phehla, a student leader, is killed when he is run over by a car during clashes with police at Tshwane University of Technology. A second student leader, Shaeera Halla, is shot 13 times with rubber bullets as police try to disperse protesters at Wits.