Letter to 2016 UCT applicants' parents and fee payers

28 December 2015 | Story by Newsroom
From the VC's Desk
28 December 2015

UCT in 2015 and looking ahead to 2016

I write to you as the parents or funders of an applicant for admission to the University of Cape Town in 2016. Many of your sons or daughters have been offered an academic place, or have been made a conditional offer of an academic place; others will have been waitlisted and will be waiting for the release of school-leaving exam results. This is, I know, an anxious time in whatever category you find yourself.

Looking back over the past year in the higher education sector, 2015 will probably be defined by the #MustFall movements - starting with #RhodesMustFall - and culminating in the events of 19-30 October 2015, with the unprecedented national #FeesMustFall protests. I imagine that as a prospective parent or funder, you will want to know what this meant for UCT in 2015, and what it will mean for UCT in 2016 and in the years to come. I write to address those concerns but also to emphasise that while media coverage of UCT focused almost exclusively on the protests, the real business of the university continued in 2015 with some of the best results ever.

Some academic achievements in 2015

  • While many students participated actively in the protests, the academic work of UCT proceeded without disruption throughout the year, and it was only in late October with the national protests that exams had to be postponed by two weeks but were nevertheless all successfully concluded.
  • We have just completed graduation ceremonies which included a record number of PhDs - an amazing 139 - in one graduation session.
  • More funding was raised from foundations and donors than ever before, exceeding previous records by about 30%.
  • The growth of research grants and publications has sustained our international recognition.
  • Several new initiatives, institutes and programmes were launched, many with a strong African focus. These include the Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking, and the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy linked to the Square Kilometre Array.
  • About 1000 students from other countries came to spend a semester at UCT in 2015.
  • Five new Research Chairs were awarded to leading women scientists at UCT by the National Research Foundation. These were in the fields of Biomedical Engineering and Innovation, Plant Desiccation Tolerance for Food Security, Dermatology and Toxicology, Mineral Law in Africa, and Physical Cosmology.
  • This month it was announced that UCT is set to become the 11th member of the International Alliance of Research Universities, a partnership comprising Australian National, UC Berkeley, Cambridge, Copenhagen, ETH Zurich, National Singapore, Oxford, Peking, Tokyo and Yale universities. We are the first new member since the formation of the alliance 10 years ago.
  • New discoveries, start-up companies, social impact projects, improved pass rates, and increasingly competitive applications processes, as well as post-graduation employment rates of 94%, all point to UCT's ongoing success and reputation.

Transformation

The #RhodesMustFall campaign has prompted most, if not all, members of UCT to revisit their positions, to reflect on what it means to be a university in South Africa in 2015, on the experience of students who have felt excluded by its heritage and practices, and on how we must adapt to be fully inclusive. It has initiated an important review of names, symbols and artworks; and many other transformation initiatives are being pursued with renewed energy and commitment, ranging from curriculum reviews to recruiting and advancing more black academics.

Fees and financial access

UCT's policy is to charge fees at a premium enabling us to run a world-class university and to supplement the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) so that no student would be turned away from UCT for reasons of affordability. The no-fee-increase decision means that UCT will forgo expected 2016 tuition and housing fee revenue of R158 million. Though Government has made good on the President's pledge that state funding would be provided for over 80% of this amount, we will still need to make up the shortfall.

In addition, South Africa needs to find a sustainable approach to funding higher education so that poor students effectively pay little or nothing and do not face fee increases in the future, while those who can afford to pay some, or all, of the fees continue to do so, with regular annual fee increases.

Insourcing and other demands

For the past two decades UCT has procured a range of services from outside companies, including the bus service, catering in residences, cleaning, security, and grounds and gardens services. Staff employed by such contractors are typically paid low wages, which we attempted to ameliorate by requiring UCT service providers to pay a minimum wage far above industry standards to their UCT-based workers. We will insource most of these services in 2016. I have no doubt this will contribute to greater social justice on campus but it will also cost more and will bring fresh management challenges.

Financial health of UCT

Ensuring financial sustainability in the next decade is going to challenge us, as it is going to challenge all South African universities. We are fully committed to careful financial planning and discipline. The University Council recently approved a budget for 2016 that breaks even and preserves all key programmes. (The Council is UCT?s governing body. It comprises 30 people, 18 of whom are external to UCT. Among its key responsibilities are to ensure the financial sustainability of UCT.)

We will also renew our efforts to raise funds from foundations, corporates, donors and alumni to ensure UCT maintains the highest quality teaching and learning environment, as well as its globally recognised research excellence. Our fund-raising efforts will include an appeal to those parents who are able, to donate an amount equal to the originally proposed fee increase (10.3%) to UCT's financial aid fund so we can sustain the university's commitment to substantial financial aid, well beyond the thresholds set by NSFAS. Details will be included in the 2016 fees account. I can assure you that UCT's finances are being judiciously managed, and that UCT will maintain its current standards of excellence.

Protests and the issues that we will face in 2016

This is not the place for a detailed discussion of the various factors that contributed to the scale of the student and worker protests of October/November 2015. Suffice to say that there are various contributing elements, including fees, labour issues, conflicts within and between political parties, a more general frustration amongst young people and particularly black students with the established order, a profound unease with leadership in government and in parastatal institutions and more general mobilisation around what has been called the ?second transition?.

These issues have not gone away. The 40th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising (on 16 June 2016), local government elections and parliamentary milestones (such as the State of the Nation Address) could, I expect, provide focal points for protests next year.

UCT management is sympathetic to many of these issues, and shares some of the student movement's goals. We will be working hard with student leaders and others to address those issues over which we have control or influence. If there are peaceful protests with accompanying vigorous arguments, we will respond constructively. But we will not tolerate violent disruptions of our academic programme, or any actions that endanger the safety of our staff and students, or vandalise university property.

I hope that as prospective parents, funders of students, and friends of UCT, your confidence in UCT will prove well-placed. I look forward to meeting many of you at parent orientation meetings on campus in the New Year: on Saturday, 30 January 2016, for local parents and on Monday, 1 February 2016, for out-of-town parents.

I wish you all a safe, happy festive season and a peaceful New Year.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Max Price
Vice-Chancellor


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