The University of the Western Cape’s student leadership warns of a student revolt next year when the institution enforces an interim mandatory Covid-19 vaccination policy.
UWC became the first institution in the province to adopt a vaccination mandate for staff and students ahead of the 2022 academic year.
The institution said that while it is an interim policy that would be reviewed after the first semester, it had adopted a “soft approach” that allowed the majority of its student population to register, but would bar unvaccinated students from accessing campus facilities – including residences.
UWC joined the University of the Witwatersrand and University of the Free State in adopting the controversial policy. The announcements came after weeks of deliberation by institutions, as well as the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, said to be highly transmissible.
The director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, Professor Tulio de Oliveira, said new infections, in Tshwane appeared to be centred around universities and colleges.
While UWC said students, staff, service providers and visitors could apply for an exemption from the policy based on medical, constitutional or religious grounds, students whose qualifications require on-site attendance, such as dentistry, nursing, pharmacy and others, would need to be vaccinated before they can register.
UWC’s SRC president, Phumelelani Mshumi, said: “We reject the position taken by the university to limit access to university spaces such as residences, libraries and other facilities.
“This forced approach is not the way to go if you want to encourage students to get vaccinated; the university must create spaces for engagements with students so that they can make an informed decision about the matter.
“All this will do is create chaos come next year because you will find students outside the gates of the university coming in for walk-in applications, but will be barred from coming in. First-year students who come from afar will not be able to access residences unless they are vaccinated – this is academic coercion.
“This exclusionary policy, despite the nice words attached to it, will exclude students from access to education. Students doing physiotherapy and nursing and other courses will not be able to register unless they are vaccinated. This will lead to anarchy – as a student body, we will fuel the fire if need be.”
Sakhile Mngadi, from the DA’s Student Organisation (DASO), said while they supported the move, mechanisms must be in place to ensure that students who opt for online learning are supported.
“There will be some form of exclusion for students, but before we demonise universities, the reality is that safety of students comes first. The type of spaces universities are in create an environment for high transmissability of the virus, and with the new variant precaution is needed,” he said.
“But universities should ensure that they offer enough support to minimise the impact of the policy. Those students who are unvaccinated must be supported as well. We cannot ignore the socio-economic realities of this country and the impact it has on students.”
The SA Students' Congress (Sasco) Western Cape chairperson, Mangaliso Nomphula, said: “Not allowing students access to campus is detrimental to their studies, especially if their coursework is practical and requires them to have face-to-face learning.
“Come next yea,r students will have to take a stance because it was very tactical on the part of these institutions to adopt a policy when examinations have been completed and the majority of the student population has left.
“Institutional autonomy is being abused by these universities, who are busy implementing policies in the name of safety, but are taking away an individual’s freedom of choice before the national government has taken a position on vaccine mandates for the country.
“Sasco will hold its national general council meeting in the second week of December in KZN and this matter will be on the agenda, where a way forward will be formulated.”
The University of Cape Town is scheduled to have its council meeting this coming Saturday, while Stellenbosch University is meeting on Thursday.
“Council is to be updated on the progress that the Rectorate made towards developing a rule on vaccination for students and staff for the 2022 academic year. Council is only likely to approve a vaccination rule in early 2022,” said SU’s spokesperson, Martin Viljoen.