University closures would have ripple effects

2016-10-02 06:03
Max Price

Max Price

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The risk of shutdown confronting our universities has serious economic ramifications within and beyond the university sector.

If universities cannot complete the 2016 academic year, there will be a ripple effect throughout the economy because of the young professionals who will not be able to graduate and take up the jobs that are waiting for them in January 2017.

For example, our public hospitals are counting on absorbing about 2 400 health sciences students in the country who need to graduate in December.

About 350 would come from the University of Cape Town (UCT).

They are all due to start their internship or community service on January 1 2017.

The health service is absolutely dependent on those junior ­doctors, physiotherapists and psychologists. The people ­currently doing their service will have left on December 31.

So, if the new cohort of medical interns and other health graduates cannot start in January, there will be a serious risk of collapse in the public health sector.

That is not the only sector that would be affected. Many of our graduates write professional exams not set by the ­universities. Accountancy graduates, for example, can only write their board exams once they have completed their ­degrees.

If they cannot finish this year, they will be unable to write the exams and proceed to their new careers the next year. Law students will be unable to take up their articles.

Other potential graduates who have jobs lined up for next year, and are expecting to start earning an income and help support their families, will not be able to do so.

Those from lower-income households will suffer the most.

Of course, the higher education sector will itself be severely affected by a failure to complete the academic year.

If our current students do not finish this year, and have to come back next year, universities will be full for the first three months of 2017 or longer while we catch up. There will be no space for this year’s matriculants to begin their university studies.

This backlog could mean that future students will only start midyear – or later. It may take a few years to get back to the normal cycle of admissions and graduations.

There is also a direct financial burden on universities if we cannot complete the academic year.

On average, universities get about half of their income from government subsidies.

The half that comes from fees will be lost if students whose ­academic year should have been completed in 2016 are still in class and residence in 2017.

They will reasonably say to us:

“We have paid for our studies and exams. If we couldn’t finish ­because the university closed, we cannot be expected to pay again for another semester in 2017.”

We have not yet calculated what share of income would be lost in such a scenario – ­perhaps 20% – but it would put most universities at financial risk.

Another daunting negative consequence of not completing the academic year is the risk of losing academic staff.

Our ­academics, dedicated to teaching and research, have chosen to commit to universities in this country, on the assumption that the university sector remains vibrant, rewarding and ­stable.

But many of them – particularly those with international reputations as leading scholars – have other options. If they leave, the country suffers as the quality and reputation of its universities ­decline.

If this happens, it would take years to ­restore.

I must emphasise that this analysis is not about the merits of the protesters’ causes, the main one being “free quality education now”.

Nor is it a criticism of assertive protest ­fuelled by frustrations and delays in seeing change happen regarding the affordability of higher education, particularly for the poor and missing middle.

But it is a plea that shutting down the universities is a self-defeating strategy because whatever funding mechanism ultimately materialises, the higher education system will have been severely damaged and so will the lives of many current and future students.

UCT will do everything to keep the campus open.

We do so primarily for the thousands of current students who wish to study and complete their qualifications.

But we do so also in recognition of the responsibility we have to the job market awaiting our graduates in 2017, to the current matriculants waiting to embark on the next exciting chapter of their lives, to all our staff and to the future sustainability of the university and the higher education system.

Price is vice-chancellor of UCT


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Read more on:    uct  |  uj  |  wits  |  max price  |  university protests  |  university fees

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