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National shutdown looms over funding for varsity students

Students protest at University of Cape Town on Fridayv against the financial exclusion of students who owe outstanding fees . Picture Leon Lestrade. African News Agency/ANA.

Students protest at University of Cape Town on Fridayv against the financial exclusion of students who owe outstanding fees . Picture Leon Lestrade. African News Agency/ANA.

Published Mar 14, 2021


Tertiary institutions across South Africa are braced for a nation-wide shutdown as the funding crisis, accompanied by increasing student fee-protests 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 student fee debt of almost R14bn. In addition, the move towards digital learning as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has severely impacted finances of tertiary institutions.

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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, post-graduate funding, missing middle students and the housing crisis.

Spokesperson for Nzimande, Ishmael Mnisi said yesterday that the student union was meeting the country’s university student representative council leaders at the weekend to discuss their demands 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 Covid-19 pandemic,” Mnisi said.

On Thursday, Nzimande announced that Cabinet agreed that funding should be reprioritised from the budget of the Department of Higher Education and Training in order to ensure that all deserving NSFAS-qualifying students are able to receive funding support for the 2021 academic year.

This decision has been taken in the context of funding cuts and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Following this decision, NSFAS will be able to release funding decisions, and the registration process at public universities can continue as planned.

“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.

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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 the University of the Witwatersrand, which turned ugly when the SAPS fired rubber bullets at students, fatally wounding by-stander Mthokozisi Ntunzi, which sparked a national outcry. Some likened this to a repeat of the death of Hector Pieterson, who was shot almost 45 years 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.

SAUS national organiser, Yandicer Ndzoyiya, said a meeting held with SRCs on Saturday resolved to "close all operations" at the institutions except at the University of Western Cape (UWC).

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UWC management announced this week that it would allow all students, including those with historic debt to register for the new academic year.

Ndzoyiya said the protest actions would continue until students' demands, presented to Nzimande were met.

"There's no time to talk with him now, we will request to meet with the president," he said, adding that the union was no longer interested in talking to Nzimande "who as a communist, was expected to understand the plight of poor students".

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Students at UCT met on Friday campus to signal their intention to shut the university down over the lack of NSFAS funding, which left some students unable to register and get accommodation.

UCT SRC president, Declan Dyer, said the students would show solidarity with other institutions fighting against financial exclusions and historic debt.

"We will announce the details of the plan of action later on Sunday," Dyer said.

UCT management issued a statement on March 12, saying it had set aside R30m for historic debt.

There are 1 655 students with historic debt amounting to R88m, the university said.

UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola said the university 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. Students can register without having to make any payment, including the minimum initial payment,” he said.

Student leader for the Pan Africanist Students Movement at UWC Aphelele Buku said students would also join the planned protest marches as they also demanded for the scrapping of historic debt.

"We want nothing less than free education. Government will have to find a way to handle the historic debt. We stand in solidarity with fellow students affected by the exclusions at other campuses," Buku said.

He said those who had graduated but still owed universities could not access their academic certificates.

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 University of Johannesburg 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.

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 a 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.”

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.”

Meanwhile, Unisa, said in a statement that it has taken note of the High Court order issued on Thursday against Nzimande and the university by the EFF student command and the Black Lawyers Association Student Chapter following his instruction to the distance-learning provider to lower its intake by 20 000 students.

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

“I think that this has been coming for a while now, and in some respects what Covid did is kind of speed up what was already sort of on track. Currently, there are three or four fairly major challenges, the one is what is being front and centre, the two student funding issues which is student funding related to the NSFAS programme, so that's the government bursaries for students and there's a R6.1bn shortfall for 2021,” he said.

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