Campuses geared for national shutdown

On Monday morning, several university campuses responded to a call for a shutdown at higher education institutions as students call for free higher education and that institutions register all students, including those with historical debt. 

Students from technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges have also joined in the #FeesMustFall protest. 

On Sunday, the South African Union of Students (SAUS) called for a national shutdown of all higher education institutions after it said that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande had failed to respond to the union’s 15 demands mainly regarding funding. 

Last week, the Mail & Guardian reported that the South African Students Congress and the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command also called for a national shutdown of universities. 

Students from Nelson Mandela University, Rhodes University, North West University, University of Limpopo, University of Johannesburg, University of the Free State, University of Zululand, Sol Plaatje University and the Durban University of Technology were participating in the shutdown. 

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However, the student representative council from the Tshwane University of Technology said in a statement that its students would not be participating in the shutdown as they were yet to conclude the 2020 academic year. They said they were in solidarity with other campuses in the “struggle to advocate for those who are always failed by the system”. 

At a press conference,SAUS said it rejected the minister’s response presented to them by the deputy minister, Buti Manamela

“We see these responses as a ‘check box’ exercise, unsatisfactory and with no tangible solutions to address the 15 demands submitted. This is also a testament to the lack of urgency and commitment by the ministry to amicably resolve these issues without exposing students to brutal protests,” SAUS said in a statement. 

“As it stands, student debt is at R13-billion. Therefore we demand financial clearance and the clearance of historical debts for all students to ensure smooth registration. The University of the Western Cape has set a good precedent in this regard. A failure to clear debt is setting universities for protest and unrest.”

The University of Western Cape (UWC) announced earlier this month that it had decided to clear all students to allow them to register. 

“All students will have their registration fee added to their tuition account, and the upfront payment will be waived, allowing for immediate registration. Students will, however, be expected to submit a payment plan in respect of their student debt by mid-April 2021,” said UWC in a statement. 

On Sunday evening, the University of Cape Town (UCT) announced that the council had decided to allow students with debt to register “with immediate effect” as per the demands of UCT’s SRC. 

The university, however, said allowing the students to register even though they had debt did not mean that their debt has been extinguished. 

Nzimande told SAUS that his department was not in a financial position to support institutions to clear all fee-paying students’ debt. 

“We are aware that there are many students whose families struggle to keep up with fee payments, and indeed many families who have also been negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, given the difficult fiscal situation, all government departments, including the department of higher education and training, have been subject to budget reductions in 2020 and 2021,” Nzimande said.

“I am aware that many institutions are doing what they can to assist students in need, and to allow them to make payment arrangements to be able to register, where this is possible. However, institutions also have to remain financially sustainable to continue to operate effectively, and financial decisions are made at the level of university councils.” 

He said the students’ historical debt funded by the national student financial aid scheme (NSFAS) is being addressed between the scheme and universities. He said these students could register even with historical debt if they signed an acknowledgement of debt form while the process between universities and NSFAS was underway. 

In terms of other demands, such as the 0% fee increase for the 2021 academic year and allowing all students to go back on campus under level one lockdown, Nzimande said these were matters that individual institutions need to deal with. He said student leaders in fact sat in the council where fee increases are discussed. 

Regarding other funding matters, Nzimande said these would form part of the work his department will embark on to review the government’s funding policy and examine its affordability and sustainability. Nzimande announced on Thursday that the cabinet had instructed his department to look at the funding policy of higher education and come up with a workable solution. 

Universities South Africa — a forum of the 26 universities — meets today with all vice-chancellors, where some of the funding issues are expected to be discussed. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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