National varsity shutdown looms

By Edwin Naidu Time of article published Mar 14, 2021

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Johannesburg - Tertiary institutions throughout South Africa are braced for a nationwide shutdown as the funding crisis, accompanied by rising student protests over fees, threatens to derail the 2021 academic year.

Threat of protest action comes amid a funding shortfall for universities amounting to more than R6 billion, subsequently resolved following government intervention, expected cutbacks in subsidies, and the escalating total student fee debt currently at almost R14bn. In addition, the move towards digital learning as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has severely impacted finances of tertiary institutions throughout the country.

On Friday, the South African Union of Students (Saus) handed over a list of demands to Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Blade Nzimande, calling for urgent action on student debt, unfunded students, transformation, postgraduate funding, missing middle students and the housing crisis.

Spokesperson for Nzimande, Ishmael Mnisi, said yesterday the students’ union was meeting the country’s university student representative council leaders at the weekend to discuss their demands for students and the minister’s response.

“They have threatened a national shutdown,” Mnisi confirmed.

“We hope that following the announcement of Cabinet and the minister of higher education, science and innovation, that it will be possible for the students to now register and for the academic year to proceed peacefully and calmly, particularly given its late start due to the pandemic,” Mnisi said.

On Thursday, Nzimande announced that Cabinet had agreed funding should be reprioritised from the budget of the Department of Higher Education and Training in order to ensure that all deserving NSFAS-qualifying (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) students are able to receive funding.

This decision has been taken in the context of funding cuts and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“No NSFAS-qualifying students have been affected by these delays, as universities had agreed to extend the registration period to ensure that students without funding decisions would not be prevented from accessing a place that they qualify for,” the minister said.

Cabinet also agreed on a comprehensive review of the student funding policy of the government while Nzimande expressed concern about the growing student debt. Some of the demands that are being received by government and universities relate to the debt of students who may not be funded by NSFAS but who are struggling to register because they have not been able to pay debts, and are doing well academically.

The nationwide protest threat follows action earlier in the week at Wits University, which turned ugly when police fired rubber bullets at students, fatally wounding by-stander Mthokozisi Ntumba, which sparked a national outcry.

Some likened this to a repeat of the death of Hector Pieterson, who was shot almost 45 years ago protesting under apartheid against the instruction of Afrikaans as a teaching medium in Soweto.

Few expected similar conduct in a democracy with the outrage led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, as well as EFF leader Julius Malema.

Students at UCT met on Friday afternoon at the Graca Lawns on campus, to signal their intention to shut UCT down over the lack of funding from NSFAS, leaving some students unable to register and secure accommodation.

Protests are expected to resume at Wits University amid claims that student leaders have been suspended over their participation – although the university has denied the reasons for their action, saying it was due to misconduct.

Students at the UJ are planning to join the protests in solidarity, while on Thursday, 24 students at the University of Free State were arrested in Bloemfontein while protesting exclusion based on outstanding fees.

The protests over financial exclusions also extended to the University of Pretoria, where students showed solidarity with students at Wits and sympathy for Ntumba, a father of three from Kempton Park, Ekurhuleni, Gauteng.

Last month, Saus warned Nzimande to address the issues of student debt, unfunded students, transformation, postgraduate funding, missing middle students and the housing crisis. They also wanted action against dysfunctional councils at two institutions, including placing the councils under administration to protect the rights of students to quality education.

“The minister must not wait until students rightfully protest against the collapse of institutional governance for him to note the urgency of student demands.”

Student debt is a mounting problem for all institutions in the country – the University of KwaZulu-Natal spokesperson Normah Zondo said the university manages a high level of student debt that is in excess of R1.6bn – the highest of all the public universities in South Africa. Wits has a student debt of R1bn, while UCT’s student debt figure is R88 million.

UKZN was not expecting protests, but did not rule it out. After extensive discussions, the university executive management and the student representative council reached an agreement on student matters on March 1.

Wits University vice-chancellor Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, whose student debt figure doubled in three years, said student funding is a national, system-wide crisis which the university cannot solve alone. “The state and other social actors have a critical role to play in resolving this crisis. We need an urgent national debate on this crisis and our students need long-term, definitive solutions to funding higher education.”

The university spokesperson Elijah Moholola said UCT spent R1.4bn on student funding, with another R30m set aside for historic debt to assist students.

“UCT, like all other universities, is awaiting NSFAS funding decisions for 2021 applicants. The pending NSFAS outcomes do not necessarily prohibit students from registering for the 2021 academic year. UCT does not charge any registration fee,” he said.

Unisa said in a statement it has taken note of the high court order issued, on Thursday, against Minister Nzimande, and the university in favour of EFF Student Command and the Black Lawyers’ Association Student Chapter following his instruction to the distance-learning provider to lower its intake by 20000 students. Unisa has also approved a special once-off programme for the 2021 academic year, whereby students who can potentially complete up to five semester modules will be identified and allowed to complete their last modules at the end of the first semester.

Ahmed Bawa, the chief executive of Universities South Africa, the representative body of vice-chancellors, said university heads will meet tomorrow to discuss the funding crisis in higher education.

“What you see at Wits has nothing to do with that, it is the challenge of those who fall into what we call the missing middle, students outside the NSFAS threshold in terms of family income but who are still poor. If a family earns R355000 a year, then that family does not qualify for access to the government bursaries,” Bawa said.

“Student debt, however, cannot be written off because that money is owed to varsities which can be used for infrastructure development, maintenance, improving student staff ratios and so on, so there is no possibility of debt simply being written off,” he said.

Sunday Independent

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