Keep universities open

Consequences of a shutdown will be terrible

Photo of protest in support of opening UCT

Photo: Ashraf Hendricks

By GroundUp Staff

30 September 2016

Our tertiary institutions face the threat of having to cancel the academic year. Classes resume on Monday at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and some student protesters are intent on preventing that from happening. If UCT cannot assure the safety of its staff and student body, it will effectively close for the remainder of the year. Wits, UJ, UKZN, Fort Hare and many other institutions are in a similar position.

It will be very serious if this happens. Here are some likely outcomes:

Students have a right to protest. They have raised issues of vital public interest and highlighted many of our society’s wrongs. Universities should respect their right to protest, and they should continuously engage with protesting students. We need a country-wide plan to make university education more affordable for low- and middle-income households. But protesters do not have a right to disrupt classes, intimidate students, destroy university property or use violence.

The universities have a duty to protect students who wish to complete the academic year. As we have seen over the past week this isn’t easy. Our reports have shown that both the police and private security are poorly trained. They have often responded abysmally: security throwing stones at students, or police shooting rubber bullets unnecessarily at protesters who present no immediate threat to anyone.

All options should be pursued by university management to avoid conflict. But we have reached a point where some universities have no choice but to deploy security to protect students, staff and infrastructure from violence.