We, the vice-chancellors of all Gauteng-based universities today appeal to all students, academics, professional and administrative staff and parents to do everything within their power to ensure a smooth start to the academic year and to underline the importance of tertiary education as the foremost route to empowerment for individuals, families and communities.

Our job as universities is the empowerment of the next generation of leaders for the South African economy, society and governance through academic study leading to concrete, sought after qualifications. As the universities in South Africa’s economic heartland, we are aware of our responsibility to ensure that learning, teaching and research can continue uninterrupted through the 2016 academic year, and we are appealing to all associated with the universities to make their contributions to achieving the same goal.

We unequivocally support the call for access to quality higher education for all as enshrined in the Constitution. We are uncompromising in our determination to defend the right of all students to a quality education, regardless of their economic or social standing. This is necessary if we are to realise a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and economically and socially inclusive society.

The absolute condition for our universities is to be able to play a role in the transformation of society and the empowerment of individuals for learning, teaching, and research to take place unhindered. Damage to university property can never be a solution and only contributes to disempowering those most dependent on university facilities such as libraries, laboratories, and administration.

We remain completely committed to the dialogue with our students which started last year as we together search for the long-term solutions to the challenges facing higher education. The appointment of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry gives all of us – academics, students, administrators, and parents the framework within which we can seek concrete solutions which are both workable in practice, and acceptable to all.

Government, under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma and Minister Blade Nzimande, supported by vice-chancellors, has made huge strides in addressing the issues and challenges facing universities.

Following the report and recommendations from the Presidential Task Team on Funding for Higher Education, a total amount of almost R17 billion has been committed by government to support universities in managing the 0% fee increase in 2016, and addressing NSFAS shortfalls and outstanding student debt. In an environment of fiscal restraint, this is an exceptional achievement.

Universities, in turn, have also put in place our own institutional mechanisms to mobilise additional funds and to enhance support to financially needy students and their parents, in order to create better access to higher education.

We realise that many challenges remain, particularly for the so-called ‘missing middle’ group of students who are unable to access NSFAS funding, and who find it difficult to pay their own way. We are doing everything in our power to support this group in the short-term, and are working with government to improve this support in the medium and long-term.

The current funding model is based on fees. There are many other ways of funding higher education and it is possible that the Presidential Commission may recommend a new model in the long-term.

We are deeply concerned with the recent disruptions and violent protests linked to student registration processes at some of our institutions. In most cases, these sporadic but sometimes violent events had been led by a small group of students. In some instances, they have been supported by the employees of service providers contracted by our universities.

We are however aware that the vast majority of students – actively encouraged by their parents – are keen for the academic year to get underway. All we are asking is for these students to be allowed to get on with it while we move forward with a common agenda to resolve the issues of access and finance that we face.

We call on all sectors of society, including parents, churches and civil society, to mediate, and to work with us to ensure that the higher education sector does not suffer long-term damage. In particular, we call on the leadership of all political parties to demonstrate leadership and ensure that their supporters work towards stabilising the system. Our higher education sector is one of the best functioning sectors on the continent, which we as a country cannot afford to destroy. Our students certainly cannot afford to lose a year because a minority is determined to disrupt teaching and learning.

All members of the university community have the right to protest but such protest must respect the constitutional rights of others to access higher education institutions, in order to learn and work.

Any attempt to disturb the smooth running of the universities as they gear up for the new academic year should be rejected by anyone interested in the broadest possible access to higher learning as a route to transformation and intergenerational empowerment in our country. As places of research, innovation, learning and teaching which rest upon the fundamental premise that universities must always be a place of open debate, the Gauteng-based universities will continue to take all necessary steps to ensure the safety, security, and freedom of movement and debate of all our people.

This means that we will also ensure that anything which can endanger students, staff and the buildings will be prevented.

We urgently appeal to all students and other role-players to respect the rights of others to access our universities, to act responsibly through constructive engagement, and to desist from any form of violent or disruptive protest action, which places our community and facilities at risk, and jeopardises the entire higher education system in its task of empowering the next generation and the country.

This statement is issued by the vice-chancellors and rectors of the public universities in Gauteng.