[But] what sparked this protest? It’s actually very important that I make the point that the single event is a statement by the Minister [of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande]. There was nothing that the university announced that would lead to a protest or the academic disruptions. It was the announcement by the Minister. And, in fact, prior to that announcement, I had been having discussions with the SRC about the matter, and, including on the day of the announcement, just before his announcement, I met with the SRC where we agreed that we would have a wide engagement process. And when the protests first started, or at least when I was alerted to it, we were about to start a meeting with the chairpersons of all the academic councils to discuss exactly that.
The issue of free university education is a very laudable one and we discussed it at the Senate meeting only very briefly recently and the Senate, in principle, supported it. But it requires a lot more depth when you then begin to ask, “What do we mean? Should it be free for all students? Or should it be free for those who are poor and those who really can’t afford the full cost of a university education?”, and that’s the debate that was interrupted.
What do you feel, then, is the next step in this situation?
The issue of the primary call in the national protests is free university education and that is not a decision within any one Vice-Chancellor’s control. It’s a matter of public policy and I say public policy because, yes, the government can make a decision but ultimately it’s a matter that affects all citizens of this country; because if we look at school education, it’s not entirely free. You have designated schools where they are using a framework [that] learners in those schools don’t pay school fees but if we look at who comes to our university, the majority are coming from schools that do pay some sort of a fee. If we go to completely free, it would require that the state subsidises that part of the university’s costs and that is, for us as a university, about 28% of our existing funds which, in rand terms, is a huge amount of money. So, state subsidies would have to compensate for what we would normally get in annually for fees.
Would you say that the ball is now in the government’s court, then?
Absolutely. It’s in the government’s court and I’ve said that to everybody that’s asked.
I cannot make a declaration on fees or it being completely free. My job is to think about the sustainability of the university and, should there be no tuition fee at all, we would have to have a subsidy from the government to offset that amount for us as a university.
What are the implications of shutting UP down now academically, financially, and so on? Some individuals have expressed concern to Perdeby that they rely on the university as a source of additional income as they are hired as invigilators for university exams yet they might not get that income if there are no exams.
Let’s just go back in time. It started about four weeks ago. We were close to recess. So the issue of an early and extended recess was the first decision we took. If we were able to begin a full academic program on 10 October we would have been able to run classes in a more condensed way with tests being rescheduled and complete the academic year with the final examinations.
With the disruptions that happened then on the 10th, we’ve had to sit down and think [about] how we complete the academic year. What has helped us is that, as you know, we have a hybrid learning system in place and so when we looked at the alternatives, in the current situation it became clear to me that the entire national system continues to be volatile. In fact as we speak, look around the country – more campuses are closing on a daily basis and if we look at the violence, it is becoming more extreme, look at the degree of arson, the burning of laboratories and the like. It became clear to me that we had to look at alternative ways of completing the year. So that’s where our teaching approach, I think, has given us an opportunity to make sure that we offer teaching and study material to all students and to make arrangements for each specific programme, obviously the fixed postgraduate students differently to undergrads, final-years differently to first-years and the likes. So it’s very complex to make alternative arrangements. But that’s what we’re looking at and we’ve rescheduled the final examinations.
It would be disastrous not only for UP students, but for the country [not to finish the academic year]. What happens if we don’t graduate doctors? All the doctors go out after being in lectures and they basically service the poor communities in that year after they leave us. Where would that leave the poorest of the poor in terms of health care; teachers going into the schooling system and the like? Again, this is not simply a UP issue; it’s not an issue of a set of individual students; it’s a public matter. We have a group of students leaving the school system. If this year doesn’t conclude what happens to the  school leavers? So it is a national crisis. And I think it deserves national attention and as a matter of urgency.
Universities are not just about permanent staff and students. The impact of the university is far beyond our gates. We have a major impact on the economy of the Tshwane metro. On a daily basis we have functions on campus. To run those functions, a huge number of service providers from caterers to people who run sound systems [are needed] and if we don’t operate at all, their livelihoods are affected. It’s not just a matter of 50 000 students and 5000 staff, or 60 000 students if we count the distance education. It’s a matter of the ripple effect on the local economy and for the Tshwane metropolitan area, it’s huge because it’s us, it’s [Tshwane University of Technology (TUT)], and SefakoMakghato [Health Sciences University]. You can imagine, three major institutions, we’re the largest research institution in the country, TUT is the largest university of technology, the impact on the local economy is huge. That’s why I’m calling it a national crisis.
Is there perhaps a fear among staff that we don’t open next year?
We have a collective will to do so because our job is to serve the public; we are a public institution. I said when I addressed staff the other day that when times like this face us, there are two characteristics that matter. The one is [that this] is a test for our resilience as an institution. The second issue is that if we are innovative, we can see this through. We now must ask ourselves, “What innovative, creative ways can we make sure that we deliver to our South African public as a public university?”
What measures do we have in place to write exams come 14 November?It may be faculty specific but is there the possibility of writing on campus?
Yes, there is. I remain hopeful that the national situation will resolve itself before we start with the exam timetable, which has been announced, in November so I’m optimistic and remain optimistic that before that, we will find stability in the system. So writing examinations on campus is of course how we normally do it and how I would like to do it this year.
Is UP currently in talks with the government?
Oh, absolutely. You know, all the Vice-Chancellors are in talks with, chiefly, the Ministry of Higher Education and Training. Many of us, including the business sector, the public, were at that meeting the Minister [of Higher Education and Training] called where the students rejected what the minister put on the table. But that’s an ongoing process and, as I said, the final decision rests with government and whatever the way forward is, we will have to be part of it.
Has there been any engagement with the parents?
Yes. Firstly, the majority of students have reached the age of majority so they’re over 18. So the university always has to think carefully before you communicate directly with parents. We had to initially look at our systems for communicating with parents because our system was structured to communicate with students. So we now have a system in place to communicate directly with parents where we have their details and that’s happened this week. So the communication with parents has improved and I’m already seeing parents saying “Thank you for sorting this out. We now have a clearer sense of what’s going to happen”. So, yes, it was an issue at the beginning and, of course, as any parent would be, they’re concerned in this situation, as should be every South African citizen. Because this is an issue that threatens the long-term sustainability of the entire university system and we have to think about the future. If universities implode, you can’t rebuild it overnight. It will take at least another generation to rebuild these institutions. It’s not a matter of closing for six months and then picking up where you left off. It’s a rebuilding process and that will take another generation, at least, and we can look across the continent. Look at the history of university systems in the post-colonial period; they still haven’t recovered.
Has UP been threatened by any legal action?
Yes, I have had letters from parents threatening legal action and firstly, let me say, that I empathise with their anger and their concern over their children. As parents, they must be concerned. We’ve tried to respond to every parent that has written to us. We might not get to them as quickly as they might like but I have a whole team of people assisting me, making sure we respond to each of the communications from parents. We try to keep parents updated. Our commitment now to completing the academic year is a very firm commitment. We are using alternative methods that we are working on but that’s the commitment we make – that we will complete this academic year.
You hosted a meeting with staff last Monday. What is the sentiment from staff?
There are different views. The vast majority of staff, in principle, just want to get back to stability and to see us do what we’re set up to do, which is teaching and learning. There are staff who participated in the protests, and I’m making that conclusion because I saw them in the group, and I’m meeting with some of those staff members. I’ve had initial discussions and I will, later today, have further discussions.
I have made it clear that I’m committed to engagement on the issues but there’s some non-negotiables in the process and I cannot have people who are protesting set these non-negotiables because my job is to take into consideration the interests and the perspectives of all the students, not a small minority of students and from what I can see on the Hatfield campus, the consistent number has been about 200. We have had [that] during the course of the protest that number building way beyond that to maybe 1000, 1500, I’m really estimating. But to be quite frank, every effort we’ve made to hear the voices of all students has been disrupted. And as I said, this is a public issue; every person’s perspective should be heard and that’s what democracy is about. This democracy was hard fought for and many people died in the process and we must honour the principles, and also, that’s what universities stand for. We might not like somebody’s perspective but they have a right to express their view, to have it debated, and thereafter, we’ll craft a way forward and that right has been disrupted.
Would you say then that UP is committed to hearing all views and wouldn’t necessarily side with the protesters? One of their demands is that UP announces their support for the movement, in line with student demands.
The UP Senate has said they support the principle. That’s not taking a side. We also said in the Senate that we commit ourselves to a process of structured engagement. That was disrupted. The design of it was to allow everyone, in a safe space, to express their view and have it debated. It’s very important that that’s a principle we hold on to.
Protesters have released a memorandum that outlines their demands.One of these is the demilitarisation of campus. What are UP’s views on this demand?
Let me say this, firstly: we had an open campus and that principle of an open campus is an important one because universities should be open spaces. The additional security came after the intimidation, harassment, and violence, and all of us as a university community would like to go back to having an open campus. But we continue to have threats: threats against individuals through intimidation, through harassment, and I’ve heard that journalists, including of Perdeby, have been intimidated and harassed and that’s simply not acceptable. It’s my job to take every step to ensure the safety of the UP community and, in fact, that is one of the main concerns of the parents: is my son, daughter, niece, nephew safe on your campus? Now, I cannot fail in that duty. Should anything go wrong, I must, with a clear conscience, be able to say what measures I’ve put in place to ensure your safety, the people in your team and the like, but those threats continue. Let me say that the additional security came as a response to a situation where people were threatened. And I’m not talking simply about verbal threats. I’m talking about physical threats. I saw people carrying sticks and the like. That’s simply not the kind of behaviour I can tolerate
They have also asked that the suspensions of students be lifted. What are UP’s views here?
Let me just go back a little. When we resolved the protests about insourcing, one of the parts of the agreement was that there would be no action taken against students who participated in the protest. Following the protests on language, we had a lekgotla. In the process of that lekgotla, we agreed that the suspended students would not be prevented from coming to class to continue with their lectures. We didn’t drop suspensions but we agreed that they could come to class. So in the context of the protests of the entire year, I heard that call on two previous occasions. In this round, many of the individual students that have been suspended are exactly the same individuals and its clear to me that for those individuals, what they commit to, simply doesn’t materialise. If I sign a document, I try to honour that agreement. Well, the agreement [from their side] has not been honoured and my job is to, as I said, think about the safety of all students so that’s the first thing I want to say. The second thing is that we [are] no longer talking about peaceful protest. We’re created a designated area on campus for protest. Well, that has not been honoured. Instead, what we had was, people intimidating other students, threatening that they have to get out of class otherwise x,y, and x would prevail. You yourself might have been subjected to that and that’s simply not acceptable. We have a democracy. If you have issues, we create platforms for discussion and engagement. If you want to protest peacefully, we will respect that right, but this has crossed the line.
In line with that need for engagement, the other demand is that we have a mass meeting, not faculty or department specific meetings. Is UP considering a mass meeting or have you considered one?
Let me put it this way: firstly, we must hear everybody’s perspective. The question I ask: if we have a mass meeting, we would have to hire Loftus [and] how do we hear perspective in a venue like that? So what do some people mean by “mass meeting”? We have, in fact, had one in the past. It turned into a shouting match in the Amphitheatre where others were silenced – they were called names, they were booed. So then I looked nationally. Every group on every campus has had similarities and the mass meeting at every university has gone through that. It hasn’t worked at one institution. So, you cannot have a conversation of different perspectives. And we at the university have diverse political perspectives. How do we ensure a space where every perspective can be heard without it turning into a silencing of some voices? I don’t think the format of that will work.
So what we had designed was a process, bottom-up. Everyone would have a chance. The faculties would then develop a consensus view and that might have lead into a consensus university position which might have said “We agree as the University of Pretoria… On these particular issues we have different views…,” that kind of a statement. That’s what we were working toward.
Is UP still going to persevere with engagements?
As I’ve indicated to you, we’ve had ongoing engagements with the interim chair of the SRC [Thabo Shingange] several times, Prof. [Carolina] Koornhof [Vice-Principal: Student Affairs] met with the entire SRC this morning, they will meet again tomorrow. Even the group calling themselves Fees Must Fall, I indicated to meet with a number of them in a structured format. First they agreed that we would meet in fairly large group but not a mass meeting but then I got a message saying, “Please will you respond via email?” But I remain open to engagement in a structured format where people can be heard.
Do you still hope to release a comprehensive statement from the university compiling the different views?
Does UP plan to release a statement about the Fees Must Fall group’s memorandum specifically?
Well, I’ve looked at that and that might be the conclusion I reach tomorrow but I had hoped that we would have an opportunity to meet differently, in a face-to-face manner as opposed to digital statements. These are not issues that are simple, they’re quite complex. As I said, “Are we saying free for all students? Are we saying free for the poor or this category?” and unfortunately we haven’t had an environment conducive for making that decision.