Mcebo Freedom Dlamini, the president of the students’ representative council (SRC) of the University of the Witwatersrand, has lambasted Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande for not being serious about addressing the country’s student funding crisis.
The young firebrand also sharply criticised the management of the university, from which hundreds of poor black students could be expelled this year because of insufficient government funding.
At a press briefing called by the university on Wednesday, which the SRC joined, Dlamini outlined the crisis facing students dependent on loans from the National Students’ Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
Hundreds of returning and new students had not had a response to their applications for NSFAS loans, although registration at the university was continuing, Dlamini said.
Rubbing salt into the wound, Wits told these students they would have to pay R4 670 to be cleared for registration, which was half the university’s normal registration fee.
“Today students are registering. But only the rich are registering, the poor are not,” said Dlamini. “We’re rejecting the R4?670 upfront payment. Even if it was R1?000, we were going to reject it because the poor can’t afford it.”
‘Eating its own, like a pig’
Wits offered the students some advice on its official Facebook page this week: “If you don’t receive a NSFAS loan, you can de-register by February 28 2015.”
Dlamini accused the Wits management of being unsympathetic. “We’re asking management, why are you being cruel? All of a sudden the university wants to eat its own, like a pig. These are poor black students, who have struggled to attain the opportunity to be here at Wits.”
But he quickly rounded on Nzimande, becoming the first student leader of an ANC-aligned youth structure to blame the minister publicly for the government’s failure to address the critical shortage of NSFAS funds.
“We can’t let go of the ministry of [higher] education and blame the university alone. The minister of higher education must also take us seriously,” he said.
“It is now high time that the minister takes us seriously as South Africans and as students. Year in, year out, we will fight universities, and year in, year out, universities will be burned, when [in fact] the problem lies with the minister.”
Minister ignored the funding crisis Dlamini said the Wits branch of the South African Students’ Congress had walked out of a meeting held by Nzimande with ANC partners at the University of Johannesburg last Friday.
“The only thing [he did] was just cracking jokes about Nkandla instead of dealing with the issue here.
“We walked out as Wits. Inasmuch as we’re an alliance, but we felt that being there was useless because he kept talking about Nkandla and other political parties when we had brought a sensitive issue of NSFAS.
“I am saying this in front of everyone, and I hope he’s also listening, that he must take education seriously. The ministry must put more money on higher education to deal with the issue of NSFAS because this has been happening year in, year out.
“Even next year, there will be a problem of NSFAS, up until the minister of higher education takes charge and makes education a priority.”
Matrics from poor families were facing a hopeless situation, he said.
“Inasmuch as you can produce from high school your matriculants … but, if you have not invested on higher education, that’s a waste. They will be on the streets [taking] … nyaope with those distinctions. The ministry must now take us serious. That’s the call we’re making.”
Failing the cream of society
He said Wits was admitting only the “cream” matrics and also had an obligation to help the stranded students.
“Inasmuch as the government has an obligation, the institution also has an obligation to educate society. What kind of a country will we be that undermines education? If Wits fails to lead, the politicians who are uneducated will fail to lead. Wits has an obligation to take care of the cream of the country.”
At the same briefing, Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib said there was not much the institution could do if NSFAS didn’t provide sufficient funds.
“If the NSFAS money is finished, how else do I proceed? How do we pay for the costs, how do we pay for electricity, how do we pay salaries? That’s the fundamental question. That’s the issue.”
Responding to the allegation that management wasn’t being sympathetic to poor students, Habib said: “It’s because we don’t have the cash. If we had the cash, we would deploy it. It pays us to have our top students in this university. If we had cash and scholarships, we would deploy [them] quickly.”
Reserves have been allocated
He said the money the university did have, including R100-million made by an anonymous donor late last year, and about R600-million in reserves, was already allocated to other projects.
R10-million of the donation was for the Wits art museum. “That’s his or her wish. The other R90-million must be invested [towards] the advancement of the academic project to establish and take the Wits academic project on to a new playing field.
“We can’t simply move monies from one area to the other. The autonomy of vice-chancellor or the executive team is restricted by the very contracts we enter with donors.”
Habib urged students not to direct their anger at the universities, which only administered funds on behalf of NSFAS.
“There is definitely a need for more financial aid for students throughout the country and, rather than directing misguided anger towards universities, we should be approaching NSFAS, government and other sectors of society to collectively invest in developing the high-level skills that our country and continent desperately require.”