With a few weeks to go before the start of the academic calendar at universities tempers are already flaring in the sector.
President Jacob Zuma’s December announcement on free education is at the centre of the uncertainty about what is going to happen at these higher education institutions when they open their gates for 2018.
But one thing that Universities South Africa (USAf) – the body representing universities – has made clear, is that no walk-ins will be entertained at its 26 universities.
Zuma announced in December that free education would be provided for poor and working class first-year students starting this year. And that the new definition for poor and working-class students is a combined annual income of up to R350 000.
This means that students who had not applied at any university because they did not qualify for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) whose threshold was R122 000, now have a chance to study at university.
But applications for new students at universities closed before Zuma made the announcement.
In a statement, USAf said it had met with the department of higher education (DHET) and Nsfas following the announcement to discuss its implications.
“One of the outcomes of that meeting was that since applications to all 26 universities had closed towards the end of 2017, no ‘walk-in’ applications would be accepted. Universities would abide by their enrolment plans and targets which are agreed between each university and the DHET,” reads the statement.
The body said students who now wish to study at any of the 26 universities, following Zuma’s announcement, must apply online through the department’s Central Application Clearing House.
In the statement, USAf suggested that there would be mayhem come the start of the academic year following the free education announcement.
“We have raised our concerns about the timing of that announcement and the absence of a clear implementation strategy , implementation plan and adequate roll-out time for such a significant development in the funding of our public higher education system.
Ideally, we would have liked a year to roll out the new system; instead we have two to three weeks. We have repeatedly raised our concerns about the use of the student fee issue as a political football. This is not just disingenuous but also opens the way for the issue to be used for pure political purposes as we have just seen,” reads the statement.
“We therefore implore all political parties and student leaders to adopt a responsible approach to this new development in the public higher education sector and to work in concert with the universities in addressing the challenges that may engulf the start of the new academic year in 2018.”
The body further stated that it was not consulted prior to the announcement.
However, higher education minister, Hlengiwe Mkhize, hit back on Twitter on Tuesday morning, rubbishing USAf’s claims.
“Trying to figure out what Prof Ahmed Bawa is reported to have said: that the president of the Republic Pres JG Zuma was not supposed to announce improved support for the poor and working class families before his approval. Vice chancellors were briefed,” she tweeted.
“It is in line with an inclusive agenda to ensure that the poor are not excluded and discriminated against on financial grounds,” she further tweeted.
Meanwhile, president of the EFF Student Command, Peter Keetse, reiterated calls made by the command-in-chief of the EFF, Julius Malema, in his end year message that those who had passed matric “extremely well” in the past but could not afford university fees to report at the academic institutions of their choice this year.
“The EFF will be at the gates of all learning institutions to ensure that priority is not only given to those who can afford to pay,” said Malema.
In its statement, USAf said it was concerned by such statements by political leader encouraging students to turn up at universities without having made appropriate arrangements for admission.
But Keetse tweeted: “Dear students and students to be, please note that there will be walk-ins at all institutions where @EFFStudents exist.”
Universities discouraged walk-ins following the death of Gloria Sekwena, a mother who was killed during a stampede at the University of Johannesburg in 2012 when chaos broke out as prospective students and their parents were queuing for late applications.