Stop the rot at universities

Chaos erupted at UKZN's Howard College campus on January 27 2020.
Chaos erupted at UKZN's Howard College campus on January 27 2020.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

After this week, the University of KwaZulu-Natal has joined the ranks of the chronically dysfunctional universities of SA.

In fact, it is now questionable whether this once famed institution is a university in all but name.

Many of its top academics have fled the violent campuses from Durban to Pietermaritzburg.

The top matriculants from the province routinely bypass the once distinguished Howard College or Westville Campus to be scooped up by leading universities in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

In my previous job I happily interviewed an A-rated scholar desperate to get away from UKZN, and one of the top five matrics from a top boys school in Durban’s leafy suburbs told me he would accept admission to the Free State medical school (he was admitted to study medicine everywhere) on condition of mentorship.

A building housing the HIV/Aids support unit went up in flames.

Students were engaged in pitched battles with police as they vowed to burn down the School of Education on the university’s Edgewood Campus.

These are not random targets.

Two of the most devastating crises facing the province for decades are HIV infections and the quality of education in the schools.

On both measures, KwaZulu-Natal fares worse than most provinces. That is what the marauding students aim to destroy.

But anything is fair game in the violence visited on the UKZN campuses.

A guardhouse and a kitchen near the examination building was torched.

Cars on campus, anyone’s car, was set on fire.

Cars driving past a campus during protests would be pelted with bottles and stones in this frenzy of violence.

A fire extinguisher was dislodged in one building and trained on students waiting in line to register.

A section of the gymnasium and a mobile office also came under fire.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how your tax rands go up in flames on university campuses.

It is not, however, the wanton destruction of public property that constitutes the principal threat to the future of our universities.

It is the other things lost in the fire that should concern us.

The complete lack of reason and the easy resort to blind rage.

The inability to resolve complex problems through negotiation.

The utter disrespect for the wishes of the majority — it takes more or less 100-200 students to shut down the academic programme of a five-campus institution which just enrolled more than 9,000 first year students.

The dangerous logic of a narrow self-interest: if I do not get what I want, I will burn the place down so that nobody gets what they want.

This is what happens when universities of the province become an empty shell of academic ambition.

Where more than 4,000 fake degrees were allegedly bought and sold at the University of Zululand.

Where a security guard was doused with petrol and set alight by marauding students at the Durban University of Technology in September last year.

Where the dean of arts, also at Zululand, was gunned down two years ago in the driveway of his home for uncovering what was alleged to be a fraudulent PhD syndicate operating at his institution.

Connect the dots and wake up. This is not normal.

So much for free higher education, you might say.

The fact is, a university education is never free.

Our previous president, more versed in political than financial calculation, made promises that any higher education manager would have told you was going to bite back with a vengeance — as we see right now.

It is impossible (and unwise) to fully fund every student in an economy with stagnant growth.

With steadily declining funding from government, in real terms, universities simply cannot erase historic debt (an issue at the heart of some of the protests) or not increase tuition fees without staring bankruptcy in the face — in which case everybody loses.

Frighteningly, this is precisely the disastrous course followed by public entities: refuse to radically cut costs or increase revenue in the expectation of billions in bailout funding, and you get SAA, a national carrier stranded while that of our northern neighbour, Ethiopian Airlines, soars in reputation on the back of prudent financial stewardship.

How does one stop the rot?

First, by supporting the stewards of the academic state, our university leaders.

If UKZN goes down in a ball of fire, it would be because our last defence against financial recklessness, the Vice-Chancellor and the team, have reneged on their most solemn duty — to build and retain a university in Africa worth its name.

Second, stop the doublespeak.

There is nothing glorious or defensible in the destruction of university property; these are criminal acts of vandalism not heroic acts of struggle.

Third, find innovative and courageous ways of restarting conversations on how we can resolve these recurring complaints about adequacy and equity in student financing for academically deserving students.