Students need unity from leadership, not Twitter wars

Over the years there have been anecdotal stories that suggest that there is not too much love between the ministry of higher education and university leaders.

In fact, last year at a Universities South Africa (USAf) conference, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande alluded to the fact that he would not tolerate being undermined by vice-chancellors (VCs).

He said this as he lambasted them for having had a meeting with former president Jacob Zuma in 2015, without his knowledge, to discuss the #FeesMustFall protest that resulted in a 0% university fee increase.

This and other events over the years where vice-chancellors have defied the ministry offer windows into the clashes that often occur between the ministry and the VCs.

Of course universities enjoy their autonomy but as public institutions, from time to time, they still have to work with the ministry for the greater good of the sector.

The latest incident shows that there is just no seamless working relationship between the ministry and the VCs.

On Sunday, deputy minister of higher education Buti Manamela took to Twitter to lash out at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and “others” for having announced that they will be starting the second term online on Monday.

Manamela said the decision by these institutions is “irresponsible and inconsiderate” in that some of the students would be left behind by this act. He also said this was happening even though there has been an agreement “with all stakeholders to work towards a later date when we are all ready”.

Manamela is leading a higher education Covid-19 team that is supposed to “co-ordinate sector response”.

As expected, Wits vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib did not allow Manamela to tweet without getting a response from him.

Habib told Manamela that his tweet was “irresponsible” and went on to do a thread explaining Wits’ position and the interventions the institution has put in place to assist its students during online learning.

I want to believe that Manamela’s tweet came from a good place. And that it was not to get likes, retweets or sympathy. I want to believe this.

However, I am also not sure how tweeting is supposed to ease the anxiety of millions of students who right now find themselves overwhelmed by the whole situation and are looking for anyone to allay their fears about their studies. It also does not assist lecturers who now find themselves having to find new ways of ensuring that they teach students online while also navigating the workload that comes with this method of teaching.

And while at it, there are institutions who do not have the resources nor expertise to go online with their studies. The students and leaders of those institutions zijonge enkalweni, are waiting on government to give them direction.

A Walter Sisulu University student stuck in Maclear in the Eastern Cape is not interested in Twitter debates so is a Sol Plaatje University student in Kuruman. They want to know when they can return to class.

If there is one lesson we should take from this virus it is that working against each other is not going to assist. If there was ever a time when we needed the ministry and VCs to put their differences aside it would be now. We need united leadership to speak with one voice and assure the thousands of students worried sick at home that there are people who are working tirelessly to save their future.

This is also a time when the voice of USAf needs to be loud. We should be getting a sectoral message from this body. If that was the case we would not be seeing individual vice-chancellors having exchanges on Twitter on matters that were agreed upon by this body. Usaf is such an important voice in the sector but unfortunately it is often inaudible. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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