SOUTH AFRICA: State struggles to resolve fees row

University and student leaders are negotiating over steep fee hikes that sparked protests in Johannesburg in recent weeks. While the campus disruptions are unlikely to spread across South Africa, they have placed pressure on government to resolve a perennial problem.

South African Students Congress secretary-general, Siviwe Zamva, told University World News there was a countrywide outcry among students over fee increases proposed for the new academic year starting in February. With most universities negotiating with students, Zamva hoped the protests could be contained.

The fee issue crops up annually, as universities budget for the next academic year, and it regularly sparks anger among poor students. Although most receive loans or bursaries from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, these do not cover the full costs and enormous pressure is placed on families while also fuelling high student drop-out rates.

Universities argue that government subsidies, as well as loans and bursaries, have not kept pace with the costs of delivering higher education to South Africa’s 735,000 students. Also, while nobody wants to say it, quality costs and fees vary considerably between institutions.

A science degree at the University of Cape Town costs R25,000 (US$3700) a year while at the nearby University of Western Cape, the fee is R13,000. Tuition fees for a medical degree this year are around R30,000 at the University of the Witwatersrand but R18,900 at the University of the Free State.

There have been calls from universities and students for the government to increase its R1.7 billion allocation to the student aid scheme. But, as in all developing countries, resources are scare and competition for funding is fierce.

“We believe there should be a standard fee structure and that universities must not have the leeway to raise fees without intervention by government,” said Zamva, adding that the ruling African National Congress should tackle the issue at its annual congress in December.

Minister of Education Naledi Pandor conceded that support for poor students did not cover all their needs. But she urged universities to “meet us halfway” – especially given improved higher education funding in this year’s government budget.

Universities counter that although the state’s total higher education subsidy has increased, with additional funding for re-capitalisation and other targeted projects, ‘normal’ subsidies have not increased sufficiently to impact on fees. Indeed, growth in student numbers and inflation has caused a real-term decline in state per capita spending.

Earlier this year, Pandor commissioned Higher Education South Africa, the vice-chancellors’ association, to investigate fees, including whether they should be capped or set within parameters. The study will be completed next month.

The vice-chancellors said that increased access and affordability in higher education was a priority. But they also recognised the principle of institutional autonomy, including setting fees at levels commensurate with “institutional imperatives” – so there will be fierce resistance among universities to fee regulation.

Sometimes violent protests at Wits earlier this month followed a proposal for a 25% rise in the student registration cost (which has to be paid before loans are received), fee hikes of up to 18% (for a bachelor of education degree) and increases of between 9% and 11% for accommodation in residences, which the university also wanted to privatise.

Management and students have reached agreement on several issues, including a reduction in registration costs, a fee increase of 8% (9% for the education degree) and non-privatisation of residences. But Zamva warned there were still outstanding issues.

At the University of Johannesburg, students protested against fee hikes of 14% and an IT levy. Despite the university securing a court interdict to prevent the disruption of lectures, classes were interrupted at three campuses. Police used rubber bullets to disperse crowds and arrested 40 students. Negotiations between students and management are underway.