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Now is the time to support embattled universities


Karen Coetzee

karen.jpgOne of the unintended outcomes of the #FeesMustFall campaign last year is the impact the protest movement is having on donor perceptions of the current state of higher education in the country.

Donors are acutely aware of the impact on university budgets of infrastructure damage, additional security measures and the burgeoning cost of injunctions and other legal measures university administrators have deemed necessary to put in place to protect infrastructure, staff and non-protesting students. These costs are eye watering and they severely impact on university budgets. Every rand spent on these special measures is a rand denied the academic project.

Donor defaults have already been publically reported and if this is anything to go by, anyone with an interest in the future of our universities should be concerned – not least student leaders whose constituents have the most to lose as their future prospects are put at risk.

It is unlikely that protesters or security personnel give much thought to the media-driven impressions of chaos on campuses and the impact this could have on local and international donor perceptions, but for donors watching from the sidelines, their primary consideration is surely whether they should be prepared to continue funding higher education in its current state of uncertainty or whether that would simply be throwing good money after bad.

From inside the sector, professional fundraisers are naturally concerned. Given the current unresolved state of affairs, we have to consider carefully what impact the current impasse has on the donor community and what we need to do to reassure local and international funders.

I would like to offer a measured response based primarily on our own experience at the University of Johannesburg.

In the face of the funding deficit and the turmoil it created last year, UJ launched a campaign to fund the so-called ‘missing middle’. By year-end it had raised over R100m.

The campaign focused on capable students who are considered ‘too rich’ for National Student Funding Scheme loans and ‘too poor’ to self fund or qualify for commercial loans. Led by the vice-chancellor and chairman of the University Council and supported by student leadership it clearly resonated with donors and will continue this year, as, without significant additional state funding, the funding gap will always be there.

This response from the donor community in the teeth of the storm was deeply encouraging. Clearly donors do care about student welfare. And they care deeply about the stability of our universities and more broadly about preparing the future leaders of this country.

The health of our universities is critical to the future stability and prosperity of the country. Universities are by nature quite fragile institutions. They need careful nurturing and broad societal support if SA Inc. is to prosper and develop into the future. The economic engine depends heavily on well-educated and socially conscious graduates. It is axiomatic that without quality universities producing graduate professionals and capable future leaders, our national prospects become greatly diminished.

So this is a plea from a university fundraiser to the donor community and more particularly to donors in the private sector. Now is not the time to withhold support for our embattled universities. Indeed, now is the time – the testing moment -- to nail your corporate colours to the mast by funding higher education as best you can.

There has never been a more propitious time for donors to confront the funding challenges faced by our universities. The #FeesMustFall movement has opened a door for donors to make a real difference at a critical moment in the history of our universities. I urge you to seize the moment and to be the difference! 


Karen Coetzee is Senior Manager, Development and Alumni Relations at the University of Johannesburg.