Ripple effects of university closures

02 October 2016 | Story by Newsroom

The risk of shut down confronting our universities has extremely serious economic ramifications within and beyond the university sector. We need to confront what these are.

If universities cannot complete the academic year for 2016, there will be a ripple effect throughout the economy because of the young professionals who will not be able to graduate and take up the jobs that are waiting for them in January 2017. For example, our public hospitals are counting on absorbing about 2 400 health sciences students in the country who need to graduate in December. About 350 would come from UCT. They are all due to start their internship or community service on 1 January 2017. The health service is absolutely dependent on those junior doctors, physiotherapists, psychologists. The people currently doing their service will have left on 31 December. So if the new cohort of medical interns and other health graduates cannot start in January, there will be a serious risk of collapse in the public health sector.

That's not the only sector that would be affected. Many of our graduates write professional exams that are not set by the universities: accountancy graduates, for example, can only write their accountancy board exams once they have completed their degrees. If they cannot finish this year, they will not be able to write their board exams and proceed into their new careers the next year. Law students will not be able to take up their articles. Other potential graduates who have jobs lined up for the beginning of next year and are expecting to start earning an income and help support their families, will not be able to do so. Those from lower-income households will suffer the most.

Of course, the higher education sector will itself be severely affected by a failure to complete the academic year. If our current students do not finish this year, and have to come back next year, then universities will be full for the first three months or longer of 2017 while we catch up. There will be no space for this year's matriculants to begin their university studies. This backlog could mean that future students will only start mid-year – or later. It may take a few years to get back into the normal cycle of admissions and graduations.

There is also a direct financial burden on universities if we cannot complete the academic year. On average universities get about half of their income from government subsidy. The half that comes from fees will be lost if students whose academic year should have been completed in 2016 are still in class and residence in 2017. They will reasonably say to us: “We have paid our fees, we paid for our studies and we paid for our exams. And if we couldn't finish because the university was closed we can't be expected to pay again for another semester in 2017.” We have not yet calculated what share of income would be lost in such a scenario – perhaps 20% – but it would put most universities at great financial risk.

Another daunting negative consequence of not completing the academic year is the risk of losing academic staff. Our academics, dedicated to teaching and research, have chosen to commit to universities in this country, on the assumption that the university sector remains vibrant, rewarding and stable. But many of them - particularly those with international reputations as leading scholars - have other options, and if they leave, the whole country suffers as the quality and reputation of its universities declines. If this happens it would take years to restore.

I must emphasise that this analysis is not about the merits of the protestors' causes – the main one being “Free Quality Education Now”. Nor is it a criticism of assertive protest fueled by frustrations and delays in seeing change happen regarding affordability of higher education, particularly for the poor and missing middle. But it is a plea that shutting down the universities is a self-defeating strategy because whatever funding mechanism ultimately materializes, the higher education system will have been severely damaged and so will the lives of many present and future students.

The University of Cape Town will do everything to keep the campus open. We do so primarily for the tens of thousands of current students who wish to study and complete their qualifications. But we do so also in recognition of the responsibility we have to the job market awaiting our graduates in 2017, to the current matriculants waiting to embark on the next exciting chapter of their lives, to all our staff, to the future sustainability of the university and the higher education system.

Dr Max Price is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. This opinion piece was first published in the City Press.

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