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10/01/2018 04:41 SAST | Updated 10/01/2018 04:43 SAST

Habib To Political Leaders: Work With Us, Not Against Us

"Political leaders are public representatives – they're meant to build and assist public institutions." – Wits' vice-chancellor, Professor Adam Habib.

Wits University.
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Wits University.

The following article was transcribed from an interview with HuffPost.

"Our undergraduate applications [closed] at the end of September.

"Many have asked why we don't reopen applications, and to answer this I'm going to draw a picture with the numbers: we've got 79,000 applications; we've got between 57,000 and 59,000 undergraduate applications for 5,664 places -- effectively we are 10 times oversubscribed of our existing places. And that is why we cannot reopen the application process; as this would create chaos.

"Our other programmes, however, are open -- honours and master's have different rounds of application dates -- these have three rounds of intakes. We have a round in March, another in July and another one in September.

"I have heard that MP Julius Malema and the leadership of the EFF have called on people to come to universities -- I think this is an irresponsible call. We have seen a mother die in 2012 due to a stampede; so there are risks to this call.

"This, however, does not mean we are callous as a public institution. So when people who have not applied come, we direct them to the theatre, where we advise them on how to apply to the central application service, show them how to go about this, and inform them of the tools available to them –– such as NSFAS –– and show them how to apply.

"It is also important to tell them that while we are oversubscribed, there may very well be other institutions where the are gaps –– and effectively the central application service can direct them to those.

"Ultimately, we go out of our way to assist people, given that we have a public mandate, and as such we have a responsibility to fulfil this mandate.

"We are not encouraging people to come in –– students can apply to the central application service –– however, should students walk in, we won't chase them away. They will be directed to the theatre, where they can be advised and assisted. We will act responsibly as a public institution to manage this."

READ: Wits' Adam Habib: 'Government Must Now Deliver'

I urge political leaders from all political parties to work with institutions – protect them, nurture them and make them institutions that work, so that we can fulfil the function that is our public function...

"Political leaders are public representatives –– they're meant to build and assist public institutions. They are not meant to create a crisis in public institutions. We saw what happened when the president started playing around with public institutions -- we destroyed them. By destroying them, we destroyed the country and created huge crises for the economy –– and the people who suffered are ordinary citizens.

"This should be the responsibility of the entire country, saying: 'Help the universities manage the issue!' We need our public representatives to work with us -- not undermine us and create a bigger crisis for our institutions.

"I want to be clear that until now, there is no chaos –– and we hope that it will stay this way. Because should there be chaos at Wits, UJ, Venda University or Fort Hare... it's not the institutions that will suffer, but South Africans.

"I urge political leaders from all political parties to work with institutions –– protect them, nurture them and make them institutions that work, so that we can fulfil the function that is our public function: to assist in educating a new generation, so that we can create the kind of inclusive developmental opportunities that we want.

"We cannot have a situation in our universities such as that which has occurred in the primary and secondary education system. Don't create a situation where Grade 4s can read, but they don't understand what they're reading -- don't do that to our institutions, because nobody succeeds.

"As a university, we recognise that opportunities are not equalised across the system, and so we ensure that we cater to everyone. This is evident in the number of students at Wits last year -- 78 percent were black, and we have the largest number of poor students in the top five universities.

"This is proven [by] the amounts we get for NSFAS, which are far higher amounts than UCT or Stellenbosch, because we take a higher [number] of poorer students.

I worry that the top universities in this country are under assault by a group of stakeholders, and if they destroy these institutions, they will simply be reinforcing inequality. ​​​​​​

"In 2014, we fundamentally transformed our admissions process to medical school, as it had previously relied solely on merit –– that private schools and public Model-C school students benefited more.

"We created a system that said 20 percent of the seats are reserved for students from rural schools, 20 percent are reserved for students from quintile 1 and 2 schools. When I came in, we had the vice-chancellor's scholarship for the top 10 students in the country who applied to us, meaning that the only people who got in were mainly private school and Model-C students.

"We then launched a second scholarship -- the VC's equality scholarship -- [for] the top 10 students, but in quintile 1 and 2 schools, because one cannot treat these schools as if they are equal.

"Then there are political leaders that accuse us of being anti-poor –– does an institution that is anti-poor do this? This again begs the question of whether these politicians are working with us, or whether they're trying to undermine us?

"I worry that the top universities in this country are under assault by a group of stakeholders, and if they destroy these institutions, they will simply be reinforcing inequality. This would mean that we will always be dependent on European, American and Asian institutions –– and that is not freedom.

"Freedom is when we build our own institutions to train our own scholars, and we make sure that we try [to] create access within the framework of what is possible.

"The call I want to make to all stakeholders is that they must work with us, and help us to do all of this, instead of trying to undermine us. We really do want to make a difference, and we really want to make a contribution to transforming our society and our world."