Students march for free varsity education

Hundreds of students marched on Parliament on Friday demanding free varsity education. They will deliver a memorandum registering this demand to Marius Fransman, the chairperson of Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education.

Mbulelo Mandlana, president of the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco), told the Mail & Guardian on Friday said they were expecting students from several campuses—including Tshwane University of Technology, the University of the Western Cape and the University of Cape Town—to join the march.

On Thursday lectures were disrupted at the Bunting Road campus of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) when members of Sasco blocked the entrance to the campus, burnt tyres and threw rocks at the police. Police used water cannons to break up the protest.

The Sowetan reported on Friday that Sasco-initiated demonstrations calling for free education were held at eight other universities this week but lectures continued as normal, despite the protests.

‘Free education would be sensible for any country to consider, but one should do it with a frank assessment of what is possible within the country’s resources,” Mary Metcalfe, director general of higher education and training, told the M&G.

‘Currently, 20% of our national budget is allocated to higher education and training. We do have the National Student Financial Aid Scheme in place to provide financial support to the poorest of the poor. In future, our intention is to expand the ceiling of what is defined as poor,” she said.

Mandla Mathonsi, chairperson of Sasco at UJ’s Bunting Road campus, told the M&G there would be no protests on Friday. ‘We decided to disperse today as most people are writing tests ... We handed the memorandum over to the university yesterday.”

Sasco UJ said the university has seven working days to respond, and if nothing is done, there will certainly be more protests.

Free education: The history
The African National Congress recommitted to free education at its watershed Polokwane conference in 2007. It resolved to “progressively introduce free education for the poor until undergraduate level”, according to a National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa summary of the resolutions taken at the conference. “Calls for universal free education were numerous and loud” at Polokwane 2007, the M&G noted at the time.

Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande subsequently denied that he had said there would be free tertiary education for all, saying that his comments had been taken out of context. In June last year he told the media at a briefing in Parliament that he had actually suggested free tertiary education for poor students.

Promising that “education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children”, the Freedom Charter says that “higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit”.

A way forward?
On April 16 a review of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme will be released for public comment. The review will investigate the challenges faced by higher education. Metcalfe urged aggrieved students to use the review as a useful way to open debate

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen.
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