#Wits fees protest a prickly issue

Johannesburg - As several universities remain shut down over the fees protests, some students at Wits University have spoken up against the violent nature of the demonstrations. Others went as far as to say free education was not feasible.

Wits remained closed on Thursday, while academic activities at the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Nelson Mandela Bay, Pretoria, Free State, North West’s Mahikeng campus as well as KwaZulu-Natal remained suspended. Tshwane University of Technology, Unisa and Sefako Makgatho University were conducting lectures under a heavy security presence.

Students protest earlier this week against fee increases at Wits University. Picture: Dimpho Maja

Some students at Wits denounced the violent protests, while others were not impressed with the calls for free education.

They asked that their identities not be revealed for fear of reprisals. Among them was Buhle*, who said while #FeesMustFall wasn’t a bad idea, students needed to be realistic about the price that comes with higher education.

“There is no way we can run large institutions like Wits at no cost,” he said.

“I know some of us cannot afford the fees, but it doesn’t give us the right to destroy property or inconvenience classes.”

On Wednesday, the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training warned that education was never free, and that countries that offered it always had repayment plans in place.

“Very few have totally free education,” said the commission’s chairman Judge Jonathan Heher, who said they had noted case studies from other countries around the world.

In South Africa, he said, such a system would have to take into account a feasible system to get loans repaid, based on the salary obtained when a beneficiary started work or on an escalating system based on increased pay.

This was backed by the Private Higher Education Interest Group on Thursday, who said fee-free education beneficiaries should be required to pay back some of the money.

The group was making its submission to the commission in Pretoria. Its representative Dr Felicity Coughlan said the gap in funding for the so-called missing middle could be an idea worth exploring to create tiered funding. But this would be effective only if the level at which National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) eligibility stopped was raised.

Coughlan, who is the director and head of the Independent Institute of Education, said the missing middle was too large and getting bigger, which meant a higher cut-off for eligibility for support from NSFAS or any other funding.

Unisa vice-chancellor and principal Professor Mandla Makhanya concurred and said that in the long term, fee-free education was unsustainable as there were already challenges as a result of financial restrictions.

He told Judge Heher, advocate Gregory Ally and other experts that fee-free education would put most South African universities at financial risk, unless the Treasury could make up the shortfall.

Back at Wits, student Buhle said the protests could partly be a ploy by some students for extra time to complete the academic tasks they had fallen behind in. “I feel the strike is just a tactic to reduce the workload. Honestly, I had a lot of deadlines this week, and I’ve been saved in a way.”

Elizabeth* said that while supporting the #FeesMustFall movement was a “cool” thing to do, as it showed that students were “liberals” who cared about the poor, the intimidation and violent nature of the protests were worrisome.

“It is the fear of voice messages threatening you late at night. It is fear that the standard of your education is being compromised for this ‘noble’ cause.

“It is the fear of the fact that the people who claim to speak on your behalf are actually dictating what you believe. Fees must fall, while a noble concept, means that I am actively told I have no place on this campus.”

Kate*, who works two jobs to pay her fees, said: “Just because we’re not in the frontlines doesn’t mean we don’t support the movement. We just don’t agree with how it’s being handled.”

Dimpho* interjected: “I feel like we’ve lost the root focus and the core of the movement. We’re destroying the very places we’re fighting to attend.”