‘That’s what happens when you students bring a bag of rocks instead a bag of books’ - UKZN mulls extension to academic year

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) is considering a controversial proposal to extend its academic programme to next year‚ a delay that could have widespread ramifications for current and prospective students.

The academic recovery proposal — which is being discussed with staff and students on Friday — comes as lecturers were suspended at its Pietermaritzburg campus after a student was shot in the arm during running battles between police and students on Thursday.

Rubber bullets‚ stun grenades and teargas were fired at striking students‚ who were throwing rocks and even teargas at officers in a number of clashes.

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The academic programme at UKZN has been disrupted since mid-August following ongoing protest action at its various campuses over a number of issues‚ including fees‚ complaints about accommodation‚ alleged security and police brutality as well as infighting amongst student bodies.

After continued clashes between police and students‚ and two fires — one at the Howard College law library and the Pietermaritzburg exam hall — the university took a decision to suspend its academic programme two weeks ago for its spring break. Campus reopened on Tuesday.

UKZN spokesman Lesiba Seshoka said the recovery plan was aimed at looking at ways to make up for lost time and extended to the end of December.

“However‚ should the students continue with the way they are doing so for another week‚ it is likely that our plan would have to be extended to next year. It will have serious implications if we do go into next year. For example‚ the medical students would be kicked out off their practice appointments and students will lose bursaries.

“However‚ that is what happens when students bring a bag of rocks instead a bag of books.”

Seshoka said that‚ after consulting with internal stakeholders‚ they would convene an urgent senate council meeting about the recovery plan during which they would iron out whether it would be a repeat of the last term or the entire second semester.

The higher education department said on Thursday it was not aware of the UKZN plan.

“The department is currently not aware of such a decision. However‚ the department and the minister would welcome such a decision if it is in done in the interest of protecting university property and the safety of students and those law-abiding citizens. The minister considers the safety of protesting and non-protesting students as paramount‚” said spokesman Harold Maloka.

UKZN student representative council (SRC) secretary-general Simiso Memela said students were aware of the possibility of an extended academic year‚ but free education was a priority.

“We were supposed to have a meeting with the registrar about the effect of this action on classes and exams. Because the protests are continuing‚ the likelihood is that the exams may be postponed and that students may only write next year.

“Some of the students are worried‚ but others are not worried. They want to continue with the protest. As the SRC we have updated them on this situation and told them that this is their choice. We represented them on the council meeting and did our best. We came back and told them what had transpired‚ but the students want to protest.”

Memela said the academic programme at the Nelson Mandela Medical School and Edgewood campuses had not been affected.

“This tells me that there are students that don’t want to protest.”

Howard College SRC president Bandile Majola said such a decision to extend the academic year would have a severe impact on students in their final year of study.

“The thing is‚ students don’t want to lose academic time during the protest. We have asked the university to help us cover the time.

“It’s going have a bad effect on the students‚ especially those completing their degrees. Internships are also likely to be affected.”

Majola said the SRC was set to meet on Friday to discuss the situation.

Experts‚ however‚ said the proposal would spell disaster.

Dr Azar Jammine‚ director and chief at economic consultancy Econometrix‚ said that the idea of shifting the academic year boggles the mind.

“From an economic point‚ the disruption would damage confidence and have a longer-term impact. From a practical point of view‚ it would be difficult to spread the resources. You have a finite amount of resources to cover an extra cohort of students.”

He suggested that the university might be hoping that the remainder of the year is used as “a cooling-off period” and that commonsense might prevail.

“All they are doing is buying time‚” said Jammine.

Alternatives like including extending hours‚ reducing breaks and studying on weekends would be a far better option‚ he ventured.

He also emphasised that there is a great difference between no fee increase and no fees at all.

“The students seem ideological motivated to push for free education. This would cost the country between R30- and 40-billion.

“Interestingly‚ (Finance Minister) Pravin Gordhan said that if only a quarter of the state capture and corruption could be eliminated we could save around R40-billion – so if corruption were curtailed‚ we could fund education.”

Ahmed Essop‚ a research associate at the University of Johannesburg’s Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies‚ said the proposal didn’t make sense.

“It’s difficult to fathom how such a concept would work because it would have far-reaching implications on a number of factors including funding and the new cohort of students for next year.”

Essop suggested an alternative to the proposal could be modeled around the concept of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) summer school‚ which served as a catch-up facility for students.

Second-year Bachelor of Music student Wyatt Edwards said that he was not aware of the university’s decision. He said the decision to extend the programme into 2017 would have implications of his and other students’ lives.

“It’s one semester‚ technically‚ but it’s going to have the same effect in that it’s going to be six months where I could have been starting my master’s or getting on with my life. My brother has one semester left and the delay is going to put a halt to his future‚ which he has already started planning. But at the rate varsity protests are going‚ it could be more than just one semester.

“I think the worst thing about the whole protesting is that the university has not kept us in the loop with what’s happening with the academic programme. They tell us academic programme is apparently still in session but protests are still taking place and it’s not the safest on campus‚” he said.

Third-year LLB student Thobeka Cele said a delayed academic year is likely to have a “bad effect“.

“We were hoping our cry for free education would be heard‚ but clearly this is not the case. If things need to be delayed it has to be done. Personally it will have a financial impact on me financially. Emotionally this entire process is draining‚” she said.

The SA Democratic Teachers’ Union on Thursday said that while Grade 12 pupils’ spirits would be dampened by news of a possible delay of their tertiary studies‚ they should focus on the upcoming examinations.

“Yes‚ it would affect them. It would mean that they would have to apply to universities out of the province that are not extending their academic programme or they would have to start later than anticipated‚ but we are saying to them that they must just work hard and pass the matric examination‚” spokeswoman Nomusa Cembi said.

Meanwhile‚ UCT spokesman Elijah Moholola said UCT is engaged in a number of conversations with various stakeholders around the impact of the protests on the academic programme.

“We are committed to resolving this and having the academic activities resuming as soon as possible.”

 

– TMG Digital/The Times

 

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