Introducing free higher education for poor students would go a long way towards resolving the perpetual funding related protests on university campuses, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has reiterated.
He was speaking on Monday, at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) where student registration and lectures remain suspended following violent protests over access to financial aid.
Nzimande said his visit to DUT was not to act as a mediator but to familiarise himself with the issues that universities of technology were having difficulty with.
“It seems to be a ritual… there must be demonstrations and the closing of the university before the year starts,” Nzimande said.
DUT is one of seven universities where, as part of a pilot project, the government’s aid scheme will establish its own office, rather than have the funding disbursed to students by the universities.
The government has been considering introducing free higher education for some time. It was a resolution of the ANC’s 2008 Polokwane elective conference, and its 2012 Mangaung conference.
“The ultimate implementation of free higher education for poor students, at least for the first undergraduate degree, will go a long way to resolving the problem (of student strikes over financial aid),” Nzimande said.
He added that a series of meetings with student leaders and universities’ managements had revealed that a lack of communication between these parties was a serious problem.
His message to students at various institutions had been that protesting should be a last resort, and that the government condemned the destruction of property.
“It doesn’t make the point,” Nzimande said, adding that it also did not win sympathy.
DUT vice-chancellor Professor Ahmed Bawa said it was critical to resolve the impasse between the institution’s management and the student representative council within the next few days, so as to not jeopardise the first semester timetable.
Nearly 1 800 students must still be registered and tests have had to be rescheduled.
Jeffrey Mabelebele, the chief executive of Higher Education South Africa, said his personal opinion was that universities would support free higher education if the government guaranteed it could foot the bill – which he did not think was possible in the short to medium term given the country’s competing budgetary priorities.