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South Africa

Daily Maverick Interview: UCT’s Vice-Chancellor Max Price, one year later

In 2015, Daily Maverick spoke at length to Max Price about what he foresaw for #FeesMustFall. At the time, there was a concern that the protests might continue into 2016. A year later, it’s not over. MARELISE VAN DER MERWE spoke to the Vice-Chancellor about the negotiations, the finances, those controversial interdicts, and what it was like to be a protester himself.

[Ed: This interview took place in sessions, October 21-28. Since it was concluded, the picture has shifted in a positive direction: ABSA and UCT announced on Friday that ABSA would be funding the university with an additional R10 million for the ‘missing middle’, and the Global University Rankings were updated. UCT rose 50 places from 2015 – 2016, ranking 112th globally and first in Africa.]

Daily Maverick: You were among the protesters heading towards Parliament on Wednesday. How did you experience it?

Max Price: I participated in the first round of several marches. I went to the one at 9am, which was considerably smaller, because it was from UCT [only]. The police had limited the number to 1,000 people and we believed there would be many more than that at lunchtime and we might be turned away, or might not have any presence.

The protest was led by the academics’ union, Nehawu, and the other employees’ union. We handed over a memorandum. I think it was effective. It wasn’t swallowed up. It was also completely peaceful. It sent a fairly united message that this is not a problem the universities can solve.

It was good that different unions and different parts of the staff body were united. One of the reasons the unions are anxious is that as a result of underfunding we have had an austerity programme. We have been shedding posts, offering people early retirements, and the unions are very aware of the constraints on staffing. They want to send that message. It’s not only about students not having access. It’s also about the impact of the budget on remuneration.

So the optimism of a year ago that there would not be job losses, that has changed?

Yes.

How are the negotiations going?

There are no negotiations. Negotiations have broken down. Or I should rather say they reached a stalemate. They have not been terminated but have not resumed either.

[Ed: A few days later; negotiations had not yet resumed.]

Do you think they can be salvaged?

I am always optimistic. I have hope something can happen, but at the moment there are no negotiations.

What happened?

There were a few factors, but a key development was when [SRC candidate] Masixole [Mlandu] got arrested for breaking into a building and intimidating staff. These were our protection officers. We already had an agreement that they had a core service to protect the property. He was not granted bail and was transferred to Pollsmoor. The SRC team said they could not continue to negotiate while he was in jail, so we didn’t oppose bail.

He did get bail. But the students recognised that we were losing time. Once the letter [stating that UCT would not oppose bail] was written, we understood they would come back to negotiations, except they didn’t. We haven’t had proper negotiations since [mid-October].

[The negotiating team] said they wanted to start again. We said only if you can guarantee no disruptions. They went back to their plenary to present our conditions, but they could not get such a mandate. We thought they would have the clout to be able to do so, but they did not.

What had been the progress until then?

The [negotiating] group we have been talking about focused mainly on the internal UCT issues.

There were four main things. We appeared to be making progress. Unfortunately it became apparent to the larger student movement that the broader issues could not be solved by vice-chancellors. Strategically, they would need to shut down universities across the country to draw the attention of government.

One of the issues we were discussing internally related to the protests in February and March, around accommodation. Representations were made that the students were protesting under unique circumstances. The potential of a restorative justice process rather than a retributive or punitive justice system is that it says if we can restore relationships and develop and amend our ways, then that is a better outcome. These are students that are often quite advanced in their studies. If they cannot complete their degrees, that has a lifelong impact. If there is a way we can allow them to complete their degrees that is still consistent with the principles of justice, we would be open to that, through a process where the context of their unlawful behaviour is understood, and they acknowledge the breach of the disciplinary code and undertake not to do it again.

Related would be the establishment of an internal truth and reconciliation commission, the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission. The IRTC would have external panellists to review cases or grant amnesty. We were willing to say if we used private security or obtained interdicts inappropriately, we would either defend that, or have panellists say that we acted too quickly, and learn from it.

But a lot of the dispute was whether the IRTC could proceed if the students were still expelled. We asked if Council could give individual conditional amnesties. There seems to be a view that nobody got amnesty. But we never got to that.

There was actually nothing in our rules that allowed me, a judge or anyone to grant amnesty. I can’t overrule sentences given by the student tribunal. It works similarly to a court system. I was willing to go to Council to request a new set of rules that would give the Vice-Chancellor discretion to grant amnesty in individual cases. That was approved, but we have not met since then.

What else was negotiated?

It was about bringing back the cadres, the IRTC, and then there was the issue of support for the national FeesMustFall campaign; for a process rather than immediate results. We were negotiating with people who recognised that it was not in the university’s power to give free education or to force the government to do that. So they supported creating a research programme. The university would seek funding for education, and we said we would align ourselves with students to make some decisions quickly, so that we could see fees for “missing middle” students start to come down, or financial aid being provided.

At UCT we have already raised funds for missing middle students, but this would apply for the country as a whole. I think we had basically [achieved] agreement on that. There was a minor sticking point that they wanted us to support free decolonial education. We support the ideal of decolonial education, and that it must be affordable. Our view, and this was our submission to the Fees Commission, is that in SA, firstly because of our income, and secondly because there are so many other needs that should be funded as a higher priority because they affect the whole population, we should support the ideal, and in the interim, it should be free for the poor.

The fourth issue was of financial exclusion – current students in the system who are unable to raise money for their fees. We hadn’t got into the detail of that yet.

These are basically internal issues, and we mostly had agreement. Once it looked like they would have to call for ending the shutdown, the external agenda and the groups aligned with the national movement became dominant. From their perspective, the only way we can get the government to concede is to get all the universities to shut down. So there is no point negotiating with the local VCs. In a way, that’s what happened at Wits. When it looked like they had a solution, the national campaign kicked in. Under those circumstances, we have to decide: do we shut down or do we do something else? We’ve decided to do something else.

What is the strategy?

The first thing was not to have [face-to-face] classes. Classes were impossible to protect. Even if it’s 10% of the students, then in a class of 200 you have 20 students.

We couldn’t distinguish them before a class. When we had security there, the result was racial profiling, which was very polarising. There was also disagreement among staff about the use of security to prevent people protesting. I think that has shifted now.

We still haven’t got the campus calm. It’s not peaceful yet. Meanwhile we’ve got to have a large number of security staff on campus, but that’s not sustainable. You can’t continue indefinitely in that manner in a learning environment.

Recognising that many students, both protesting and non-protesting, have been traumatised, we have said they have the option of writing the same set of exams in January.

What has been the situation on campus since the interdict?

The interdict came out on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, probably because of the march, the campus was quiet. On Thursday, we also had a quiet day; everything was running smoothly. I hope it’s not only because of the interdict. The interdict gives us more authority, but essentially the purpose is this: we are relying on removing people from campus if they are disrupting activities. The police will not arrest someone if they are not committing a crime. Disrupting a lecture is not a crime, unless there is intimidation.

The interdict allows us to take action if they are disrupting daily activities or telling people they have to leave their workplace, for example if people get on a bus and they tell them they have to get off the bus. That’s not direct intimidation unless they are actually being violent. Now, with the interdict, it’s considered a breach of the court order. Given the degree of disruption, it enables us, if necessary, to detain people, which becomes a significant deterrent.

I understand that Judge [Yasmin] Meer, of her own accord, wants to change aspects of [the interdict]. We haven’t seen that yet. [Ed: The interdict was amended: The second clause, which forbids protests within 200m of specified UCT areas until after exams, now also directs police and security to exercise extreme restraint, and live ammunition is forbidden.]

I want to bring you back to that issue of violence on campus. I’m speaking now regardless of who the perpetrator is. How are you monitoring it?

We have cameras installed. There is quite a lot of CCTV footage. If we see anything we investigate. If it looks like a criminal activity we ask the SAPS to step in. If it’s coming from security, we also undertake to investigate it. Many of the heavy security people have GoPros [cameras] on their uniforms, which it is a disciplinary offence to stop. There have been some monitors too. We haven’t necessarily asked them to be there but it’s an open campus. I’ve tried to encourage them to write reports for us. My general feeling is that the security have acted professionally, but there have been incidents with rogue individuals. We try to send the message repeatedly that that is not acceptable.

Last year you spoke of co-operation across campuses. Has that continued?

We talk a lot; we try to align strategies. We would be very careful not to individually adopt a strategy or compromise on something that would create a precedent [at other campuses].

We also have very individual issues. Out of 26 campuses in the country, 18 are functioning almost normally; carrying out academic functions, but with extra security. The main difference is the quite heavy security. Stellenbosch is a good example. Then there are the campuses, like UCT, that have been unable to continue functioning normally. In UCT’s case, the first thing we did was to suspend face-to-face classes while attempting to find a solution.

What’s the scenario if the university is forced to shut down?

The consequences will be quite severe. First and foremost will be the final-year students that would not enter the economy. Many sectors take for granted that those students will go into the economy. The most obvious example is the health sciences. This does not only apply to doctors who are expected to carry out their community service, but also nursing, dentistry and other skills. If new graduates are not there, the industry will be seriously compromised. The accounting and legal system, similarly, relies heavily on articled clerks. From UCT alone, one is looking at around 6,000 graduates. We will therefore try to protect, at all costs, final-year students.

Secondly, several of our programmes require classroom or laboratory work. We will run a mini-semester next year so that [affected students] can complete their practical component. Those students would have to come back again and we would have to delay the start of the next academic year. But this is not the end of the world. We can, to some extent, work with date changes.

Third is the risk to the reputation of the qualification. If you normally deliver a curriculum in a certain way, obviously you ask the question: is the quality maintained? There is a potential reputational risk. In the scheme of things, a typical academic year is about 24 teaching weeks. Of the 24 teaching weeks we would have taught in the normal way for 20 weeks and taught with online learning for 2.5 weeks, so there will be some compromise. We need to identify what has been left out and build it into subsequent semesters so as to minimise reputational damage.

And the financial impact?

We can’t be sure at the moment. One is the cost of security. Second is the potential cost of parents writing to us to say “we want a refund on fees”. There, I think we can defend ourselves in saying the contract we have is to deliver a full programme, even if it means coming back next year. Obviously we would not charge them again for that, but it could cost us more to deliver it. We haven’t quantified it, but it’s not insignificant.

However, the biggest cost is the impact on morale. Staff have to work harder now and work late. Exams are postponed, and if we offer students deferred exams, staff will have to come back early next year to mark. The disruption is very distressing for both academic and non-academic staff. People feel helpless. They find the level of security distressing. It is high, but not high enough to ensure safety. If I look at the whole thing, the most serious negative consequence is on our staff.

You’ve faced criticism from various angles, those who say you were too soft on the student movement and others who say you let them down. What’s your response?

It’s about balance, making a decision day by day. If we could have got an agreement, that would be by far the best outcome. That would mean we could continue without police and security, long-term. We don’t have an agreement, and it’s possible this situation will continue in January. What I hope might change is that government might come to the party. Universities are caught between students and government’s reluctance and slowness to address the most critical issues.

My view is that in the security-heavy environment, there is no guarantee. There are continual disruptions. The issue is not whether you can provide adequate security but whether you can create an environment everyone can learn in. It does not help to have continuing protests, even lawful or non-violent ones, in the long term.

In residences, if protesters are running through the corridors disturbing people, we cannot simply put security in every room and passage. Some might say we must discipline those students, but if you want to be fair, you need other students to provide statements and evidence. It is not a sustainable solution to go for security instead of an agreement.

The group we were dealing with was willing to find an agreement. Many of them were on scholarships and needed to get through this year. But they also needed to convince the more extreme members of the movement.

So what are the current solutions?

We are sourcing computers, for students who are unable to access the computer laboratories easily, for blended learning. We have 200 laptops on loan. We have also brought the cellphone providers on board to provide free data.

The dominant group is committed to shutting the university down. So what’s needed now, to defuse the situation, is for the government to act. I am not sure exactly what they need to do immediately. My suggestion is to identify leaders of the FeesMustFall movement – difficult because of the movement’s structure – and bring them into a task team that says: “We will bring a solution in the next month, by which fees for the missing middle could start to fall.” I’m not sure if that will be an acceptable solution to [FeesMustFall], but it would be a dramatic statement. It would show commitment.

That said, if people can bully policy-makers into allocating funding according to the most vehement demand, rather than where the greatest number of people can experience relief, that is a concern. But there is also Realpolitik, and if there’s no way the country’s universities can function without a concession, that’s something to consider. Right now, evidence is that most universities are functioning. The rest of us just have to use security and try to negotiate until a solution is found. DM

Photo: UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price. (UCT)

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