The head of the representative body for South African universities has acknowledged that it is going to be a “challenging year” amid fears that the violent student protests towards the end of 2016 may continue.
The 2017 academic year in the country began on 6 February, and there have been strong concerns that there would be a recurrence of the Fees Must Fall protests that delayed the end of the 2016 academic year.
Speaking to eNCA television news, Ahmed Bawa, chief executive of Universities South Africa, said the solutions to the fees issues represented a “big challenge”.
“It’s going to be a challenging year. We have a whole range of new initiatives in track, which haven’t yet been completed,” he said. “Of course, the Fees Must Fall campaign, we don’t have resolution there yet, that’s going to continue to be an issue as we head into the new year.
“The solution to the Fees Must Fall challenge, that’s not going to happen overnight, that’s a process issue.”
Professor Bawa added, however, that there was “lots of discussion going on” to resolve the fees issues, and that some “really significant” progress had been made in the number of students who have received government financial aid.
Asked what he hoped both the students and the higher education sector had learned from the violence last year and what needed to be done differently, he said, “we have to keep communication channels open all the time”, and that all involved should be looking at “long-term” solutions to the challenges.
“Universities must really make sure that at the local level, there’s constant communication,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that wasn’t in place last year, but we need to make sure those channels are open.
“Perhaps the most important [thing to take on board is] to try and ensure we use this opportunity, not simply to fix up the fact that higher education has become unaffordable, but that we also look at the long-term funding challenges of higher education.
“At the end of the day, that was the root cause of the Fees Must Fall campaign. Short-termism might be a very dangerous approach for us – we have to think about the challenge in a long-term fashion.”