Varsities brace for fee increase as Sasco warns of ‘worse’ protests than last year

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande is likely to announce at least a 6% increase in university fees, with student bodies already warning of protests that will be worse than last year’s nationwide uprising.

And while universities await the government’s announcement of the expected fee hike, an organisation representing vice-chancellors has urged institutions to embark on a national campaign to educate students about the importance of paying tuition fees.

The strong call was made by Universities South Africa (USAf) in an apparent attempt to prevent a recurrence of the violent student protests that brought the country’s 26 universities to their knees last October.

An impeccable source who is a very senior official in the higher education sector told the Mail & Guardian that the Council on Higher Education (CHE) – a body that provides advice to Nzimande – has recommended that next year’s fee increment be in line with consumer inflation, which is 6.3%.

However, the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) this week warned of ramped-up protests should a fee increase be implemented.

The government placed a moratorium on fee increases for this year following last year’s unrest, and provided universities with R1.9-billion towards the R2.3-billion shortfall they were facing.

President Jacob Zuma also appointed a commission of inquiry, headed by retired Supreme Court of Appeal judge Jonathan Heher, to investigate the feasibility of providing free higher education in the country.

Sasco deputy president Tsakani Shiviti said a fee hike was out of the question, and that students wanted to be told in January how free education was going to be implemented.

“As Sasco, we have mandated all our SRC [student representative council] representatives and student leaders to say that they are not going to feed into any discussions on fee increments. We have made it very clear to the department we do not want fee increments.”

Shiviti added: “If the government wants to force us to that angle [a fee hike], then that [protests] will be inevitable. But if they give students what they want, then there will be peace in all institutions.”

Meanwhile, the manager of corporate communications at USAf, Mateboho Green, emailed a proposal to university heads of communication and marketing on July 14 to “prepare the student community, parents and the broader public” for the announcement regarding fee increases for 2017.

According to the document circulated by Green, Nzimande is expected to make the announcement early next month.

“In anticipation of an unfavourable situation arising within the sector, communication personnel need to use information at their disposal to collectively protect the sector and campaign for the sustainability of universities.

“USAf maintains that until a viable solution is found for fee-free university education for the academically deserving socalled ‘missing middle’ (recognising that NSFAS [National Student Financial Aid Scheme] caters for the poorest of the poor), those who can afford to pay fees must do so.”

The objectives of USAf’s national campaign include:

  • Educating people about how universities are funded;
  • Persuading students and parents to pay tuition fees and embrace inevitable annual increases until a viable solution is found for a fee-free regime for academically deserving and needy students;
  • Explaining why higher education is important; and
  • Explaining the consequences awaiting the sector if fees are not paid, which would include a decline in the quality of education.

Green said in the email that USAf would use “every appropriate opportunity to generate human interest stories for emotional appeal, to demonstrate value flowing out of universities”.

USAf urged institutions to promote certain messages from now until December, which include:

  • The university sector being severely underfunded and requiring tuition fees to sustain itself;
  • Without high-level skills, South Africans will not be able to get the economy going again; and
  • Universities empathise with students, but if the sector continues to be underfunded and tuition fees do not make up for the shortfall, there will be consequences for everyone.

Several universities this week said they had not yet taken a decision on fee increases for next year.

Shirona Patel, spokesperson for the University of the Witwatersrand, said: “It is premature to comment at this stage, as we are waiting on government’s decision in this regard.”

The University of the Western Cape said discussions were ongoing and that a decision would be made towards the end of the year after an extensive consultation process with internal and external stakeholders.

The Vaal University of Technology said it would start negotiations with students in September, while the Mangosuthu University of Technology said its council had not yet taken a decision on the matter.

Lauren Kansley, spokesperson for the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, said decisions regarding fee increases were always taken after consultation with the SRC, adding: “The decision is traditionally announced around November.”

The University of Cape Town (UCT) said the announcement of fees for next year was usually ratified by its council in the last quarter of the year.

Asked about the university’s position on a fee increase for next year, UCT said: “We cannot comment at this stage as there are ongoing discussions both within the university and at the level of government around student fees for 2017. We cannot pre-empt the outcome of these.”

Professor Yunus Ballim, vice-chancellor of the Sol Plaatje University in the Northern Cape, said that under the current subsidy and fee arrangement, a fee increase was necessary to keep higher education institutions viable.

“This is less important in a new university like ours, at present, where fees contribute a smaller proportion of operating costs. At older and more established universities, a no-fee increase will have a significant impact on their ability to maintain the current levels of staffing, operations and quality of education, because of the relatively larger contribution that fees make to their income stream.”

Said Ballim: “We would therefore support a fee increase, at least at the level of higher education inflation, which will then allow institutions to operate close to their 2016 levels.”

Dr Sizwe Mabizela, vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, told alumni and parents in a letter dated July 19 that a 0% fee increase next year would place higher education institutions “in a precarious position” unless the state provided shortfall funding again.

“If the student fees are left at the 2015 level, this will leave a significant financial gap for universities.” He said Rhodes, which was facing “financial strain”, was embarking on aggressive cost containment measures.

Last month the university withheld the first semester results of 1 616 students who had either made little progress in paying outstanding fees or had made no arrangements to pay.

Mabizela said the results of 818 of the 1 616 students were then released after they made payments totalling R12-million.

Professor Narend Baijnath, chief executive of the CHE, dismissed suggestions that the fee increase would be equivalent to CPI stating that the Mail & Guardian had been “misinformed” by its sources.

“The advice and the recommendations are still under consideration. Various options are being considered and these will inform the advice which will be the CHE council’s advice to the minister. It will be premature at this stage to speculate on what the recommendations of the CHE council to the minister will be when the process is not yet complete.”

Gwebinkundla Qonde, director general of higher education and training, said he was not aware of when the CHE would be providing advice on fee increases to Nzimande.

“I haven’t interacted with them, but it’s a matter we prefer to keep as low-profile as possible. Even when the CHE has done that, there must be consultation and engagement with various stakeholders.”

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Prega Govender
Prega Govender is the Mail & Guardians education editor. He was a journalist at the Sunday Times for almost 20 years before joining the M&G in May 2016. He has written extensively on education issues pertaining to both the basic and higher education sectors.

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