Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s (NMMU) first year students received a sobering welcome to the institution this weekend as vice-chancellor Prof Derrick Swartz highlighted the opportunities, challenges, rights and responsibilities in store over the next few years.
Welcoming thousands of first year students and their parents in an address live streamed to various packed venues across all NMMU campuses, including George, Prof Swartz expressed his excitement at having the new recruits join the institution.
His was a message of not only welcome, but of hope and inspiration to the new students to rise to the challenges ahead for them in their new academic journey.
“Being a first year is probably the most exciting part about being at a university as a new world is being opened up to them,” he said.
“We wanted to convey to [students] the rich opportunity to gain a unique qualification that will hopefully equip them with the knowledge and skills to enter into a very uncertain world. A world in which the forces of globalization and economic liberalization have fundamentally altered the jobs landscape and we need to give them the skill, knowledge and confidence to cope in that highly uncertain, very dynamic and fast changing world, where they have to become far more entrepreneurial and creative in mapping out a future for themselves.”
Prof Swartz also touched on the various challenges affecting the higher education sector – chief of which was the funding crisis that saw protests that nearly brought South African institutions to their knees during the protests of 2015 and 2016.
Contextualising the funding crunch, Prof Swartz explained the inversely proportionate model – where the number of students entering the system was on a steep incline, while government subsidies were on the decline.
“Government is busy [with this]. We have been engaging the [Higher Education and Training] minister [Bade Nzimande] and the president [Jacob Zuma], and with great difficulty, over the last few years about reviewing university funding models,” he said.
“We, as universities, cannot give free higher education, neither can we scrap the debt or fees for that matter. It is simply not possible and I cannot concede to that. It is a policy issue. Unless and until government effects otherwise, that is the way the system legally works. It legally enforces me to collect the fees.
“At the same time, the government must increase its subsidies. It cannot lean on fees and communities to raise the difference that they are not paying. It is unacceptable that we have a government that does not prize and value higher education to produce the quality education that we have.”
Prof Swartz said he knows that his utterances would not bode well with some student activists, however, he needed to emphasize and contextualize the fees issue.
Laying down the law, he said the University would not tolerate violent protests that trampled on the rights of those not actively partaking in the protests.
“We will take every legal step to protect and secure and to open Universities. There will be no shutdown of universities,” he said.
“We will allow peaceful, legal protest, but not violence and Infractions of the rights of others. Universities by design and history are open, peaceful societies,and we cannot govern them by force, but if Constitutional rights of others are violated, the law imposes on us the responsibility to ensure such rights are upheld. We must defend the rights enshrined in our Constitution. We cannot have transformation in the context of anarchy.
“Lastly, I give you the commitment [that] the university to carry on the work on transforming the institution, and I use the term in its broad sense, to create a more equal, inclusive and a more diverse university for all of us. Those three things will hang together going forward.”
Prof Swartz reminded first year students that their taking up the offer to study at the University meant they have agreed to adhere to its rules.
“Remember, when you sign up here as a student, you sign a contract to uphold the values, and therefore the rules, of the institution. If you violate those rules, you are breaking your side of the contract. Your parents and I have to hold you accountable for this,” he said.
“So focus on the main reason you are here – to learn, to study and to graduate so you can serve the country.”
The Welcoming Ceremony was the start of the First Year Orientation programme, with incoming students set to begin registration today – 23 January 2017.
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