An institution with an illustrious past has been a prime target for the student protests that have swept South Africa. Professor Tyrone Pretorius reveals the impact on the University of the Western Cape and shares his fears for higher education nationally in an interview with John O’Leary.
The University of the Western Cape (UWC) occupies a particular place in recent South African history, as a centre of resistance to apartheid. Established as a university college for what was then known as the “coloured” population of the Cape, it formally rejected apartheid in a mission statement in 1982 and became the self-styled “intellectual home of the left” with an open admissions policy and a curriculum that frequently challenged the government’s approach.
As such, students have had higher expectations of UWC than most other universities in the protracted national dispute over tuition fees and other costs. Located in Belleville and serving the western suburbs of Cape Town, the university draws many of its students from impoverished families, who are strong supporters of the Fees Must Fall campaign.
Professor Tyrone Pretorius, who became UWC’s Vice-Chancellor in 2015, has had the unenviable job of trying to placate the students and continue the development of the university without the means to satisfy any of their main demands. The protests have been violent at times and disruptive, with some research becoming impossible to conduct on campus.
UWC’s place in the overthrow of apartheid may have helped it to avoid the “reconfiguration” that has resulted in a number of university mergers, but independence has also brought financial challenges. “We have become more sophisticated as a university,” Professor Pretorius says. “We were the first university to retrench academics and we closed some departments – very foolishly, in my opinion, as it turns out.”
In the early 2000s the Government recapitalised UWC, leaving it on a sound financial footing and enabling it to start growing again. “In the 1990s, we had been down to 12,000 students,” Professor Pretorius explains. “Now we have 23,000 to 24,000 students. And from having a really low research profiles, we have now grown into one of the seven research-intensive universities.”
As a university college, UWC’s main role was to produce social workers and teachers. Professor Pretorius says: “There was little emphasis on science. Now the science faculty is regarded as one of the best in the country. Nature ranked physics top for output and we are also good at astrophysics. We claim to have the largest science faculty in Africa.
“We have spent a lot on infrastructure in the last decade. There have been new buildings for science, the life sciences, chemical sciences and we are in the process of completing one for computational science. We haven’t neglected the humanities. The Centre for Humanities Research has been given flagship status. It is one of the better-endowed centres, thanks mainly to the Mellon Foundation.”
However, even more than for other universities in South Africa, the controversy surrounding tuition fees and other student charges has posed significant challenges. “Like most other higher education systems in the past few years, we have seen state contributions to higher education decreasing on a regular basis and universities forced into increasing tuition fees.
“In 2015, my first year as Vice-Chancellor, students were protesting about fee increases that had been determined by the university. The Government eventually decided there should be no more fee increases. There was a planned 8 per cent increase and we got that from the state.”
Since then, protests have flared up periodically. A Presidential Commission was appointed to examine the feasibility of free education, with a brief to report last June. In the event, it delivered a 750-page “interim report” in August, which was not made public until leaks began to appear in the media months later. By then, the higher education minister, Blade Nzimande, had been replaced in a cabinet reshuffle and shortly afterwards, Cyril Ramaphosa, who had expressed doubts about President Zuma’s preferred policy of free tuition, became the leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
With the new academic year starting in February and no fees policy in sight, Universities South Africa reluctantly recommended an 8 per cent increase in tuition costs, bringing them back to 2015 levels. The Commission’s proposal for income-contingent loans to make room for fee increases to be repaid by graduates only when they reached agreed salary levels appeared to be still-born.
Professor Pretorius, interviewed before the commission’s report had been made public, expressed doubts about the practicality of free education. “I have some concerns about it because we have 26 universities. If there’s free education, it will only benefit those who can win a place at university. At UWC, we already have 20,000 applications for 4,000 places. There will have to be a National Enrolment Plan because universities have grown in such a way that the state is able to keep up with demand.
“Eight out of ten UWC students rely on state funding, largely through the National Aid Scheme. There is huge student debt – 280m rand of historical debt. There are demands to write that off but we cannot afford to do that. There are also institutional demands, such as free data and transport. All of the demands are legitimate, but students have started to see the universities as surrogates for the government, and the government is not providing.”
Professor Pretorius added: “What we are seeing at UWC is our own version of the students’ proposals, driven largely by extreme poverty. But at the same time there is, in my view, a real backlash against what many regard as unfulfilled promises after 1994. More than 20 years after democracy arrived, people on the ground are not experiencing the real benefits of democracy. “I have no doubt that there is also some political opportunism because on most campuses students at the heart of all these protests come from certain political persuasions. But by and large, I see it as deep student resentment about people’s life experiences still being the same. Those who feel very strongly about this regard it as their mission in life.”
UWC has been in the news because of the levels of violence and destruction that have been seen there. “I always say that given the target group that we serve, these are real broad and bitter issues for our students. This is not a middle-class action; our students come from the poorest of the poor. Issues like transport and accommodation are significant for them, so it is to be expected that tempers flare. At better resourced universities, there is more scope to deal with them.”
Professor Pretorius fears that there could be long-term damage to the university system. “As higher education leaders, we have seen what happened in our schooling system, where the private schools have grown significantly because of the perceived lower quality of the government schools. One of our big concerns is that the current instability of our sector could lead to large numbers going overseas if they can afford it.
“In schools, parents are willing to make personal sacrifices to send their children to better resourced schools, so we are really worried that the quality of higher education could be severely affected. We might also lose some staff who are severely traumatised. Research performance will be badly affected.
“We have relocated some departments off campus because the campus was a no-go area and in the sciences researchers couldn’t access their labs. Some scientists have had to give back their grants.”
The student population of UWC is 30 per cent postgraduate, with significant numbers of international students, and this has been impacted. “We have a strategic focus in internationalisation around research – with a three-continent alliance with the universities of Missouri and Ghent, which includes humanities, astrophysics and linguistics,” says Professor Pretorius. After a relatively peaceful 2017, Professor Pretorius hopes that the surprise announcement by President Zuma on the eve of the ANC conference will satisfy the students. It promised free higher education for the poorest students and the conversion of grants to loans even for those already at university. The concession is expected to benefit about 90 per cent of households in South Africa and at UWC it will cover about 70 per cent of first-year students.
Professor Pretorius and the other vice-chancellors are understandably delighted, especially since he says that the Commission’s proposal stood no chance of success. “More than the report itself, the reaction to the Presidential Commission was very interesting,” Professor Pretorius says. “The students’ response to the main proposal, for income-contingent loans, has largely been condemnation. They believed that it would still mean hardship for students graduating with huge debt hanging over them.”
Like other vice-chancellors, however, Professor Pretorius still has concerns about the feasibility of the new policy. With the announcement coming so late in the year, there is little time for universities to plan and implement the new system for 2018. Some political parties have called on people who have not applied for financial reasons but would now qualify under the new threshold, to turn up at universities on registration. Universities South Africa has warned that they cannot be accepted, but it could still be a flashpoint.
At the time of writing, there were also no details on how the new system will be funded, given the economic situation in South Africa. The Minister of Finance is expected to provide details in his budget speech in February.
Seasoned observers of South African politics doubt that the country has seen the end of the protest movement. But for now at least, UWC and the other universities are hoping for a period of calm in which they can rebuild their academic credentials.
Professor Tyrone Pretorius has been vice chancellor of the University of the Western Cape since 2015, returning to his alma mater after a period as vice principal (academic) at the University of Pretoria, where he was responsible for teaching and learning, as well as planning and resource allocation. Previously, he had been President of Monash South Africa, the Australian university’s branch campus near Johannesburg. He remains an emeritus professor at Monash. A behavioural psychologist by training, he took his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UWC after growing up in King Williams Town. He also holds a DPhil from UWC and a PhD from the University of the Free State. He has published extensively in the fields of career psychology, coping, stress and statistics. Professor Pretorius spent his early career at UWC, moving through the academic ranks to senior professor and dean of the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences before becoming deputy vice chancellor (academic) until 2005. He is president of University Sport South Africa and chairman of the board of the University Sports Company.