SOUTH AFRICA: Cost woes spark student protests

Two things never disappear from the grievance lists of South African students - fees and accommodation. No sooner had the 2010 academic year begun than students at some universities clashed with administrations and the police over fee hikes and lousy residences. Students renewed their call for free higher education while universities reported that student debt now tops R2.8 billion (US$363 million).

Police had to be called in to restore order at Mangosuthu University of Technology in Durban and Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria.

At Mangosuthu, in the sprawling township of Umlazi south of Durban, lectures ground to a halt in the first week of February. Police fired rubber bullets to disperse protesting students who retaliated with bricks and stones. The computer facility in the library was vandalised.

Fourteen students, including SRC President Duma Ntyikale, were arrested but released after appearing in court on assault charges. They are expected in court again on 8 April. A defiant Ntyikale urged students not to fear police and continue pressing their demands. "They must arrest us again, if they do not want us to speak," he said.

The university authorities warned that if protests continued they would close the campus indefinitely. Xolani Gcaba, the Student Representative Council's spokesperson, said fee hikes and the poor state of accommodation were the main gripes. Also, he alleged that only six out of a promised 16 buses were available to transport students, forcing students to wake up early to catch a bus or miss class.

The Tshwane University of Technology's Soshanguve campus, north of Pretoria, was closed in late January after student protests against slow registration and 'filthy' residences turned violent. The turmoil included fighting between different student groups and, according to the university, criminality and hooliganism.

The university also suspended the SRC, banned political activities and obtained a court order against the Pan Africanist Student Movement of Azania after a student was injured in skirmishes between groups affiliated to various political parties.

Tshwane's management announced that millions of rand would be spent upgrading security at the Soshanguve campus. Registration eventually proceeded with a heavy police presence. Students seeking admission were screened for eligibility before being allowed onto campus. Many were turned away as their names were not on the system. Classes began last week.

During the tempestuous start to the new academic year, the South Africa student Congress (Sasco) renewed its call for the Department of Higher Education and Training to introduce free higher education. Currently all students pay fees, though most poor students receive state-sponsored bursaries and loans.

Students are eagerly awaiting a government-commissioned report, due soon, on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. They are hoping it responds to their free education campaign. If not, Sasco president Mbulelo Mandlana warned, students would be 'at war' with the minister and committee that compiled the report.

Currently students owe universities R2.8 billion in unpaid fees, according to Higher Education South Africa (HESA), the vice-chancellors' association. It said in a statement on 28 January that the country's 23 universities had committed themselves to facilitating increased access to higher education and ensuring it was affordable for most students.

Universities have been under great pressure from students and the government to keep a lid on tuition fee increases, which had been spiralling along with inflation and in response to declining state subsidies - though the latter have since improved.

Theo Bhengu, senior manager at HESA, told University World News that tuition fee increases across the sector for 2010, as a percentage of those in 2009, had been kept in the range of 9% to 15% in line with inflationary pressures and commitments made by individual institutions after internal consultation processes.

Bhengu said that at the end of last year minister Nzimande had written to all institutions asking them to consult widely on fees, resulting in most increases being decided by councils in close consultation with students.

HESA said it was finalising guidelines aimed at assisting institutions to arrive at affordable fees while ensuring the maintenance of quality teaching and learning, research facilities, student support and other services, and the financial sustainability of universities.

Universities, HESA said, had committed to making financial support to needy students available, expediting the processing of NFSAS upfront payments, strengthening systems to detect and assist under-performing students, ensuring effective debt collection and broadening access to higher education for children from the poorest schools.