VC message to parents

25 September 2016 | Story by Newsroom

Dear parents, guardians and sponsors

After careful consideration and consultation, my senior colleagues and I have decided to suspend classes for another week (Monday 26 September to Sunday 2 October 2016).

I can well imagine that you will find this news disappointing, even distressing. I know you are deeply concerned about the disruption of the normal academic programme at UCT, and its consequences for the students whom you care for and support. I also want to acknowledge the anxiety that many of you have experienced over the course of the last week, on hearing about the experiences of students who have had upsetting or hostile personal encounters – on campus or in the residences.

I am writing to you to explain the reasons for the current decision, and our immediate plan of action in tandem with the suspension of lectures for the week.

I wish to assure you that as long as we can get back to work by Monday 3 October 2016, this week's suspension of lectures will not prevent the completion of the academic year, nor the writing of final exams.

Why have we done this?

The decision to suspend lectures is not taken lightly. The university executive, together with the vast majority of staff and students, would undoubtedly prefer to keep the campus open. But we also have to take responsible measures to ensure personal safety, and to protect our premises.

In the present climate, keeping the campus open will depend on significantly increasing the levels of security currently in place. UCT is an open campus i.e. there is no physical access control. We have 33 residences, more than 60 campus buildings each with multiple entrances and exits, multiple access routes that are open to the public, hundreds of lecture theatres, laboratories, several libraries and learning spaces. To secure each of these effectively will require a far greater private security presence than the campus has been willing to accept to date. If the disruptions became more violent we would have to bring the Public Order Police Service (POPS) in to assist as happened earlier this year at UCT. Their services may not be available as they are often stretched between other universities, public service delivery protests, and various industrial actions. We have also seen historically, and on several campuses across the country over the last weeks, how interventions by police and private security can escalate the anger and violence, and increase the scale of the protest.

Universities should be able to rely on adequate levels of appropriately trained police to control campus violence without further provocation. Unfortunately this cannot be guaranteed.

After widespread consultation, I am convinced that bringing security and police onto campus will make things worse if we have not first engaged with all parties in an attempt to convince most of them that we are listening and hearing, and serious in wanting to address legitimate issues.

We also need to engage around the consequences for all of not completing the academic year, and ensure everyone understands how raised levels of private security will function if we are forced to use it as a last resort.

Engagement may fail. And if so, we will then turn to the high security option to protect access, teaching and learning and to maintain our operations.

What are we doing to deal with the issues?

Since suspending lectures, my priority – together with my colleagues in senior management – has been to engage with a range of stakeholders in the current conflict. This includes the SRC, the trade unions, academic groupings, students in residence as well as wardens, and the UCT Council. I have held open meetings with staff on all of our campuses. We have also met with the core groups of students driving the protests, but after a promising start, we have made no further progress. The door is still open. In each case, the key issue for discussion was how to ensure the succesful opening of campus without facing escalating interruptions or violence, how to create a platform for deeper engagement on key issues, and how to avoid the securitisation of campus.

The protest is also driven by a national agenda for free education. We have taken a public stand on the fees issue, in support of free higher education for the poor. We have commended the Minister's statement on fees for 2017 as a good short-term solution, and we are grateful for the additional funding for next year that allows a moratorium on cost increases for students from households with an income below R600,000. However, this does not provide a medium- or long-term solution to the current funding crisis, produced by years of diminishing government subsidy. Hence our support for the recent picket at parliament. It is crucial that decisions regarding the future funding of higher education are made soon.

During the course of these many consultations, we recognise that there is widespread support among staff and students to intensify our efforts to address the issues driving the student protests – including affordability of higher education, racism, the pace of transformation, decolonisation, and sexual violence on campus. We have also heard that the large majority of staff and students do not support the protestors' strategies of disruption and intimidation.

Plans for the coming week

For this next week we want to focus our energies on facilitating discussion on campus with, and between, students and staff (both for and against protest), on a way forward that breaks the current logjam.

We wish, in addition, to engage nationally this week with all vice-chancellors and with the Minister to see if we can find a formula that recognises the legitimate challenges of affordability and commits to a time frame to address these.

We wish to get to a place where we can open without increased security – but also to ensure that if we need additional security, everyone will understand what that means and that all other options have been exhausted.

For the coming week then, the university is open for staff, but all classes are suspended. We are asking faculties to use the week to organise discussions between students and staff to hear their issues and suggest ways forward. We will provide limited security to protect access to campus so that such engagement can proceed, and so that operational support services can continue.

Impact on the academic year

I wish to assure you that we have worked out a plan that will ensure we complete the academic year by pushing the whole calendar out by two weeks, with no reduction in teaching days, exam days or study breaks.

Sadly, we will not be able to hold graduations this year. Official transcripts will be issued, and students and their families can return to a graduation ceremony in June 2017.

It is unfortunately a grave reality that if we do not return to normal classes on 3 October 2016, our ability to make up additional lost teaching days will be very complicated with severe consequences.

Thank you for your support.

Dr Max Price

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