Missive to anxious parents of Class of 2016 learners

Dear grade 12 parents, many of you have e-mailed or in-boxed me with the same question: My child is in Grade 12 and has been accepted into university. But with all the troubles on the campuses, where do I send my child?

Professor Jonathan Jansen.
Professor Jonathan Jansen.

Let me say first of all that this is one of the toughest questions to answer in these turbulent times. I understand your concerns.

You want your child to be safe and secure at all times, and the burning buildings and violence on campuses must surely put your nerves on edge.

You have also made huge sacrifices to enable your child to attend university, and you do not want to discover in October or November that you have lost more than R200000 in total costs since your child could not finish the academic year because of constant disruptions.

I really do understand.

Some parents I know told me this week that they are taking their children out of university and sending them overseas to study at American or European institutions.

I also know parents who cannot afford to send their children overseas, or simply want them closer to home, to be considering the one or two private colleges or universities in South Africa.

And still other parents say they might allow their child to take a gap year, see whether things cool down in 2017, and then make a decision about enrolling in one of our universities.

That’s what some parents tell me.

As one deeply committed to South Africa’s universities, I would urge you not to make a rushed decision.

We need you to support higher education at home.

Our universities need the most talented students and the best professors to ensure that they do not collapse.

If parents with options all leave, it will lead to the eventual collapse of the best universities on the continent and among the best universities in the world. In other words, sending your child to university is also an investment in higher education in the country.

I would like to believe that the current unrest will at some point subside, hopefully before the end of the year.

It is simply impossible that such a small group of protesters, not all students, can keep up this level of unrest and impose their reckless violence on such a massive post-school system.

This protest is no longer about fees; it is about challenging the government and therefore the only solution is a political one, not endless and fruitless negotiations between university leadership and protester representatives.

The ANC-led government needs to sit down with the protesters and their political principals (and trust me, there are political sponsors behind the smoke).

I also know there are many different civil society groups, including religious leaders, working behind the scenes to bring an end to these violent protests.

So do not withdraw your child’s application at this stage.

Wait. Things could very well turn around and then you would have made unnecessary expenses and also lost your child’s place, especially in professional fields such as psychology and medicine.

And yet, I would advise you not to simply wait for things to change.

Write to the vice-chancellor (VC) of the university where your child has been accepted and ask for an answer to the awkward question: Mr vice-chancellor, what is the university doing to ensure my child’s education will not be interrupted in 2017 and that my child will be safe during the course of her studies?

You have the right to ask the question.

Do not use the word “guarantee” because a VC will shoot back and say there are no guarantees; ask, rather, what steps are being taken to normalise the situation.

But do more. Write to your local and national political representatives and express your outrage and concern that government does not seem to be “hands on” while the universities are in turmoil.

Tell them that your child’s future education is in jeopardy and that they need to act, now.

Ask why the president is not “present” in the crisis when these century-old treasures, the universities, are being threatened with destruction.

In other words, it is not only about your child but about your university.

And finally, join the call for free education for the poorest students in our universities.

Everybody else must pay or the system collapses. But it is the right thing to do to support the cause of poor but talented students. Otherwise your individual actions for your child alone comes across as selfish.

Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US

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