TUT: Where anger, protests and disruption are the norm

It was becoming a norm that each year, just before final examination starts, students at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) go on rampage, protesting over funding. 

The prospect of dropping out in the following year due to outstanding debt ultimately drives them to the edge. Indebted final year students wake up to the reality that the university will withhold their qualifications.  

Protests forced discontinuation of the 2015 final examination at the institution’s two campuses in Soshanguve, the township north of Pretoria. Students at the campuses will sit for their examinations from 11 to 29 January 2016, according to management. 

What stoked the fires was anticipation that more than 5 000 TUT students face financial exclusions in 2016. The number of students in this predicament could be more. 

These students did not get funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) this year despite qualifying for it and some had debts from previous years, president of the Pretoria main campus student representative council Andile Banele Malepo spoke to the Mail & Guardian when protests first erupted in the last week of October.  

The institution gave in to the demands of protesting students earlier in the year to register both unfunded and indebted students. TUT registered this cohort on the basis that they pay R3 000 upfront for both tuition and accommodation. “But even now those students are not funded. It means they are not going to view their results and will be excluded if the university refuses to register them. That’s the problem. We want the university to clear their accounts to zero now,” Malepo said. TUT is the biggest contact university in the country. It registers more than 60 000 students each year, a significant number of which are from poor communities. 

The Mail & Guardian spoke to TUT’s spokesperson Willa de Ruyter about the institution’s funding crisis. She responded to emailed questions after vice-chancellor Lourens van Staden withdrew from a scheduled interview. 

It’s apparent the major issue at TUT is student debt. Students fear financial exclusions next year, hence the protests. Is debt of current students acute?
Student debt has accumulated over years and has become a chronic situation at TUT. The majority of TUT’s students are young people with lots of potential who have been dealt an unfortunate hand in life – they grew up in disadvantaged communities and circumstances. The university is obliged to consider all applications of learners who meet the minimum academic requirements. In fact, many young people who apply for study at TUT have great matric results. A lack of funding or inability to pay on their part cannot be used as a reason not to accept qualifying students and they are usually referred to NSFAS or Eduloan for assistance. Unfortunately, there is a limit to the number of students who can be assisted by NSFAS. The annual shortfall in the available funding is one of the factors contributing to student debt.   

Protesting students demanded that their debts be cleared to R0. What was management’s response to this demand?
It is not possible for the university to clear all student debt. The financial sustainability of the university must be taken into consideration at all times and a decision like that would lead to TUT going bankrupt. In a Memorandum of Understanding signed between management and the central student representative council (CSRC), it was agreed that “students with outstanding fees who want to view their results and continue with their studies will be required to bring their parents for a case by case consideration. Such parents will be expected to enter into acknowledgement of debt arrangements with the university”. This decision was taken in view of previous instances of dishonesty. In the past TUT used to accept affidavits from the parents to mandate students to sign debt agreements with the university. It has transpired that some students have faked these affidavits and that parents are not even aware that their children owe the institution money. In instances where parents face financial constraint and cannot travel to Pretoria, an arrangement can be made at the local TUT campuses in Polokwane, Mbombela, eMalahleni, Soshanguve and Ga-Rankuwa.

But how is this offer going to work in a case of a poor parent or guardian who has no means of paying fees?
Tuition fees currently form part of the funding model for all universities in the country. Fee free education is not national policy, therefore TUT cannot exempt anyone from paying fees.

Student protests over funding at TUT appear to recur each year. Isn’t it time the institution was treated as a special case in terms of state funding?
About 50% of all universities are currently special cases. TUT management has approached the Department of Higher Education and Training as well as NSFAS for more funding this year. An additional R10 million for 2016 has already been allocated by NSFAS.   

We’ve learned that not much negotiation to resolve the protest actually happened. This was because the protest was not being led by elected SRC, but some students’ structure. Management is apparently unwilling to negotiate with this structure. Do you confirm or deny this? 
The Higher Education Act stipulates that the Central and Local SRC’s are statutory bodies and the CSRC is the main structure for management to engage and negotiate with. In addition, these are the elected student leaders who represent all students, structures and student interests. TUT has gone out of its way to engage with the CSRC, to negotiate on issues and find resolutions, as well as responding to all memoranda submitted to management by the CSRC. It has transpired that many of the individuals representing structures, operate outside of the CSRC and are either not registered students or they are registered as students, but have not been attending lectures or qualified for exams.   

Another apparent fear among the protesting students is that those in final year and indebted won’t be conferred their qualifications, TUT would simply withhold them. Will TUT do this? 
Students who have completed their studies successfully, will graduate, although they will not receive an official certificate until their debt is settled. The university does, however, provide all successful graduates with a statement confirming that they have successfully graduated from TUT.   

How many qualifications of indebted graduates from previous years is TUT currently withholding?
In the past the qualifications were not issued to students with outstanding debt and as time goes by, students pay their outstanding debt and we could issue the qualifications. During the September 2015 graduation ceremonies, 3500 students qualified for the issuing of their qualifications but there were just over 500 students with outstanding debt. 130 of these students were issued with outstanding debt as an arrangement with NSFAS. From now onwards all students will graduate but students with outstanding fees will only receive the certificate once their debt is settled.   

Citing a fundraising drive TUT leaders, including vice-chancellor van Staden, earlier in the year proclaimed to have found a viable solution to funding crisis. To what extent has the drive helped?
The fund was launched towards the end of 2014 and it is seen as a long-term initiative to address the increasing need for student funding. Due to the support of mostly staff and alumni, the fund has grown to almost a million rand in its first year.  The idea is to make 80% of the money available annually to assist academically deserving students and invest 20% to enable the fund to grow optimally and assist increasing numbers of students every year.   

We recently saw Wits University receiving R8.8-million donation from an alumni. In your perspective, why is Wits able to attract such donations from its alumni but not TUT?
Comparing TUT with Wits is not comparing apples with apples. The history of the two institutions is vastly different. Wits is almost a 100 years old, with an alumni database that was built up over decades. TUT only celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2014. However, a number of prominent TUT alumni have already signed up for the TUT Bursary and Scholarship Fund. The Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, Mduduzi Manana, has pledged his support for the fund at the launch function and is also the first patron of the Fund. Further to this, the TUT convocation is in the process of arranging a huge fundraiser for early in 2015, specifically to boost the fund.

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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