Pretoria - Free education was never free, Fees Commission chairman Judge Jonathan Heher said on Wednesday, as violence continued at universities across the country.
Judge Heher said countries that went that route always had repayment plans in place. “We examined case studies and studied documents on fee-free education from across the world. Very few have totally free education,” he said.
The Heher commission was appointed by President Jacob Zuma to investigate funding at higher education institutions and has a deadline of June next year.
As Judge Heher addressed the media briefing convened by the National Press Club at Court Classique Hotel in Arcadia on Wednesday, tensions were simmering at universities in and beyond the borders of Pretoria.
Tyres were set alight at Tshwane University of Technology, while the University of Pretoria and the Sefako Makgato University of Health Sciences in Ga-Rankuwa shut down their campuses indefinitely.
The unrest followed the announcement by Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande that universities should increase fees for 2017 by no more than 8%.
The government will also subsidise the increases for students who fell in the “missing middle”, where households earned up to R600 000.
At Unisa, the national students representative council urged students to be “combat-ready” as the call to down study material was imminent and unavoidable.
General secretary Buyisile Njokweni said subsidising the so-called "missing middle" and providing free education for the poor was going to divide students to ensure they did not achieve their primary goal of free education for all. “We did not request free education; we demanded and still demand free education in our lifetime,” Njokweni said.
“But we will not shut down campuses as yet, as we wait for the council to make a pronouncement.”
The University of Pretoria closed down its Hatfield campus, and spokeswoman Anna-Retha Bouwer said the decision was made in the interest of the safety of students, staff and property.
“In the light of continuing protest action at various tertiary institutions, management decided to close its Hatfield campus for all students with immediate effect. Staff are requested to continue with their normal duties until further notice,” she said.
There had been mixed reactions from student leaders at the institution, with some calling for a shutdown and others saying academic activities should continue.
The EFF Student Command protested in the amphitheatre at the university, calling on management to respond to the fee increment.
Bouwer said the university was engaging with student leaders and other stakeholders. “Details of the reopening of the campus will be communicated to all students, parents and staff. We regret closing the campus at this critical time, but all academic activities will be rescheduled.”
About 50 students at Tshwane University of Technology gathered at the Arcadia campus and burnt tyres at the main entrance. They prohibited students from accessing campus, and those who arrived early were locked inside and denied exit.
University’s spokeswoman Willa de Ruyter said activities at all their campuses were continuing.
“Two minor incidents were reported at Arcadia and eMalahleni, but the situation was normalised promptly,” De Ruyter said. She said any decision on fee adjustments resided with the council.
Sefako Makgato also closed down indefinitely and interim vice-chancellor Professor Chris de Beer said this was precautionary and would give way to discussions among students and other bodies.
There was utter pandemonium at Wits University as stun-grenades, rocks and rubber bullets were exchanged between police and students.
Screaming students, green smoke and loud bangs filled the air as stun-grenades were set off to disperse a large crowd sitting on the ground singing and chanting outside the Jorissen Street entrance of the university.
After a long stand-off, ambulances entered the university and those injured were treated and transported to hospital.
Students at the University of Cape continued to protest, while the institution’s heath faculty made plans to hold a picket outside Parliament this afternoon.
At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, there were peaceful meetings, after which students dispersed quietly.
Minor violence was reported at the University of the North West, University of Joburg and the Vaal University of Technology.
But Judge Heher advised the issue of a free education system was not cut and dried. “There are consequences to be kept in mind,” he said.
Students had to keep in mind the ever-increasing number who went into higher education. “So it is not only fees that must be catered for; there is infrastructure like buildings and libraries and other expensive items.”
There would also be support structures, academics and administration staff to be employed and paid.
He expressed a concern that the commission was yet to host student participation. “If they do not make submissions we will be short-changed,” Judge Heher said.
The parliamentary select committee on education and recreation meanwhile urged all students to acknowledge the processes that were under way.
They must recognise the comprehensive solutions that must be found to ensure that both quality of higher education programmes and access for everyone is achieved, the committee’s Lungelwa Zwane said.