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“Dear Students” – A Letter from Jonathan Jansen about Student Protest Actions at the UFS

How to Fix South Africa's SchoolsWe Need to ActVice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State Jonathan Jansen, author of We Need to Act and co-author of How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools that Work, has released a statement in the form of a letter to his students in response to the ongoing #FeesMustFall protests.

“I wish to make clear that the senior leadership of the University of the Free State understands and supports the demands from students and their leaders that higher education be accessible to all students, especially the poor,” Jansen writes. He notes the ways in which staff have been dedicated to students’ well-being and says that they, as UFS leadership, will continue to engage with student leadership on this important matter.

However, Jansen condemns the “violence, intimidation and threats from the small group of protesting students” and calls for mutual respect as the university works towards creating a better future for all.

Read the letter:

Dear Students

Student protest action at the University of the Free State

I wish to make clear that the senior leadership of the University of the Free State understands and supports the demands from students and their leaders that higher education be accessible to all students, especially the poor. For the past six years we have done everything in our power to meet that commitment to students who are academically talented, but simply cannot afford to pay; that is why our tuition fees remain among the lowest in the country. Our efforts to raise private funding have enabled thousands more students to study at the UFS than would have been possible on the government subsidy only. Whether it is the Staff Fund contributions (yes, our staff empty their pockets to support student fees) or the No Student Hungry (NSH) bursary programme (yes, we raise funds for food bursaries), we will continue our drive to fund students who cannot afford higher education. Let me repeat, no student with a solid academic record will be denied access to studies simply because they cannot pay.

Now, to the matter at hand. There is a national demand from students for a 0% fee increment for 2016. The Minister’s response, after consultation with stakeholders, was that universities should cap their 2016 fee increases at 6%. Despite this initiative from government, the protests continue on virtually all campuses across South Africa for the ‘no fee’ increase.

Our response, as the UFS leadership, is to continue engaging the SRC as the chosen leadership of our students in trying to negotiate a settlement on the matter. We have worked around the clock to be available to student leaders to find some resolution on 2016 fees. While we understand the demands of students, as university leaders, we can only work with the government subsidy we receive. Any agreement reached, cannot and must not place the university at academic and financial risk in its ability to deliver public higher education to the country – if that happens, everybody loses. Still, no matter what happens in terms of the response from government, the leadership door at the UFS remains open to finding a mutually acceptable solution to all parties in these deliberations.

Students, we are deeply concerned by the violence, intimidation and threats from the small group of protesting students. These dangerous and demeaning behaviours, like disrupting classes and verbally abusing students and staff, undermine the legitimate quest of students for relief concerning tuition fees. Such behaviour is completely unacceptable and the university will take action where required. We must also remember that we have an obligation to all 30 000 students whose right to learn without fear of violence and intimidation must be respected.

In conclusion, over the past few years we have worked hard to build a culture of mutual respect and embrace as we worked through some very difficult challenges on campus. You would have noticed that the university leadership responded quickly and sympathetically to reason and respect in difficult situations of rage and remonstration. A minority of students, with some outsiders, have come onto the campus to break down that culture in which, while we might disagree, we continue to work on the basis of mutual respect. I urge all students that, as we engage of this important problem of enabling greater access to higher education, we continue to remain true to the core values of our Human Project.

Best Regards

Prof Jonathan Jansen
Vice-Chancellor and Rector
University of the Free State

In a column for Rand Daily Mail yesterday, Jansen reflected on the elements which are often missing from debates surrounding university fees.

“As more and more universities scramble to survive, classes become overcrowded to save on lecturing costs, audio-visual equipment cannot be fixed on time, roofs in residences collapse with winter rains and the best lecturers start to ponder a job in the private sector where they can earn much more money for far less hassle,” the rector writes.

Read the article, which also addresses the public humiliation of university leaders that’s happening more and more:

We made a promise we cannot keep — that once apartheid ended no student would be denied access to education. A 19-year-old from Tembisa or Thohoyandou knows a degree from a good university is her one shot at escaping poverty, a solid degree from a good university. The stakes are high.

The government has increased escalated funding for student tuition but it is still not enough as the National Financial Aid Scheme has long exhausted its allocation from the Treasury. Of course students hustle to put together the requisite finances, from bank loans to meagre savings to a working uncle’s small contribution; but they try. A fee increase sometimes becomes that bridge too far.

What is often missing in these necessary debates is the simple fact that universities are themselves under enormous pressure to keep the lights on, meet the salary bill, maintain old buildings, update laboratory equipment, build more residences, hire more professors, increase academic support for students who are under-prepared by the school system, and set aside from their its own resources more bursary funds for poor students.

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