University shutdown tarnishing the country’s higher learning image: experts
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Durban - Education experts believe that the ongoing nationwide protests at various higher education institutions are tarnishing the image of the county’s universities and some of the demands are unrealistic.
The nationwide shutdown at 26 universities and colleges, which was pronounced by the SA Union of Students (SAUS) on Sunday, has seen a number of student protests across the country.
Student leaders are demanding that the Department of Higher Education and Training, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), Finance Ministry, and universities should clear students’ historical debt, fund post graduate studies and implement free education.
It is believed that the total debt owed by students across all institutions is more than R10 billion, with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) accounting for R1.6bn.
On Monday, some KZN student leaders had indicated that they would not protest this week as the province was in mourning following the death of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini.
However yesterday, students from Unisa’s Pietermaritzburg (PMB) campus, Umgungundlovu Tvet campuses, and University of KwaZulu-Natal PMB campus marched to the offices of the KZN provincial treasury in PMB.
KZN provincial police spokesperson Colonel Thembeka Mbele, confirmed that a number of students picketed in Pietermaritzburg yesterday.
Mbele said the police, however, had the situation under control, as they were at the scene to monitor the protest.
University of Zululand (Unizulu), where students blockaded the main entrance on Monday with burning tires and bricks, did not experience any protest action yesterday.
Unizulu’s Student Representative Council (SRC) president-elect Nkosinathi Sibiya, said the protest has been put on hold to allow the registration to proceed smoothly.
“We are still engaging with management at the moment. We cannot have students who are deprived of the right to education. We are going to let the university proceed with the process, while we engage with them,” he said.
Education analyst and professor from the University of Pretoria's Department of Educational Psychology, Kobus Maree, said that the ongoing protests were destroying the image of the state of higher education in the country.
“What is happening is tarnishing the image of our universities. We are talking about internationally respected universities here. Such protests, mostly violent, are painting a bad image,” said Maree.
Maree said historical debt and demands for free education were not new, and all parties involved should have engaged and concluded the matters.
“We are sending a bad message to the rest of the world regarding our education system. This is just a country that is fighting itself. Looking at some demands made by the students, they are unrealistic. It is going to be very difficult and a long journey to find the money to clear the outstanding debt that students have in all institutions,” he said.
UKZN's School of Education director, Professor Labby Ramrathan, said the demands made by students were not feasible.
Ramrathan said the decision by government to decrease funding to institutions over the years has made it harder for universities to clear historical debt.
“The students are making unrealistic demands considering the economic state of the country. There is so many competing demands of much bigger basic needs that government needs to pay attention to.”
He said the reality was that the country had more pressing issues such as housing, employment and infrastructure.
“We may claim that government should inject more for the university subsidy and NSFAS, however, education is competing with all these needs. Every sector is in demand of more money,” he said.