Students run riot at campuses over funding

Two universities in South Africa have been hit by student protests ahead of the new academic year. Tshwane University of Technology campuses were closed last Thursday as protests on some campuses began spilling over to others. Earlier in the week Walter Sisulu University's Buffalo City Campus reopened after being shut due to funding-related disruptions.

Students at Tshwane rejected an offer by the university to settle a percentage of their tuition fee arrears from 2014 before they register for the new academic year starting this month.

The protests, which had resulted in suspension of business at the Soshanguve North and South campuses, north of South Africa’s administrative capital Pretoria, spread to the Ga-Rankuwa, eMalahleni and Pretoria campuses on 12 February.

On 6 February, said MP and Opposition Democratic Alliance shadow minister of higher education Belinda Bozzoli, members of the parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education had visited the Soshanguve campus.

“Desperate students held committee members hostage for an hour and threatened them with stoning. Heavily armed police were called to the campus, and a march of about 700 students was under way when the committee left after concluding its business,” said Bozzoli.

The institution condemned the violent protests that engulfed Soshanguve.

“The university recognises students’ right to peaceful protest, but any action that disrupts its daily activities is a contravention of the university rules and regulations as well as the rights of students who want to study,” it said in a statement.

The university had to beef up security to protect students, staff and property.

Tshwane University of Technology was born out of a 2004 merger between the historically white, well-resourced Pretoria Technikon and Technikon Northern Gauteng and Technikon North-West, both historically black polytechnics located in poor areas outside the city. Today it has six campuses, and another student gripe is huge facility inequalities between them.

Roots of protests

The protests flowed from decisions taken at the start of the last academic year. In a February 2014 protest, students demanded to be registered without paying the registration fee of R1,500 (US$129) and not settling the previous year’s debt.

An agreement was reached that allowed students to register after signing forms obliging them to pay off arrears. The students did not honour their debts, the university said, and the same problem happened in the second semester.

Student debt soared by 84%, from R134 million in 2013 to R237 million in 2014 (US$11.5 million to US$20.4 million). Although students were allowed to register, the institution was rocked by another long protest action due to insufficient funds for students who qualified for National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, bursaries and loans.

As student debt for 2015 stood at R170 million, the university came with two proposals. One of the proposals would reduce the debt by R67 million and the second by R47 million – but both were rejected by students.

Drama continues

The Acting Vice-chancellor and Principal Lourens van Staden said in a statement that the university had allowed 2014 NSFAS-funded students who owed money, but who were not being funded by the organisation in 2015, to register.

But they should pay a percentage and make arrangements to clear off previous debt this year. Students were adamant that they should be able to register without paying, and also rejected an offer for NSFAS-funded students for both years to be allowed to register and pay later.

Van Staden said the university had offered to cater for an extra 2,400 NSFAS student beneficiaries by cutting book and meal allowances, which would save R77 million, with 25% of the funding given to first year students and 75% to seniors. This was rejected, along with other proposals.

Another student complaint was that this year's 12% fee hike was above the consumer price index, or CPI. The difference between the two should be channelled towards helping students who could not afford tuition fees and did not benefit from NSFAS bursaries and loans.

The university said the CPI was slightly above 6% but for higher education it was 9.5% – while of the 12% fee increase approved by council, 3% was reserved for merit bursaries and 9% would be for university operations.

“There is no money available to be redirected anywhere,” said Van Staden. Goods and services had increased dramatically, staff salaries by 8% and electricity would go up by 12% in 2015, he added.

The South African Students Congress criticised the university for failing to help needy students.

“It is outrageously irresponsible for university management to provide students with no alternative than sending them home,” Sthembiso Ndlovu, the congress’ deputy chair in Gauteng province, said in a statement. He added that students were cancelling courses due to outstanding fees and NSFAS budget cuts.

The university was not prepared to provide free education. It said in a statement: “The university is well-aware of the financial challenges many students face, but the financial sustainability of the university should also be considered.

“The reality is that there is no fee free university education in South Africa. Management, however, remains committed to engaging with student leaders to resolve the current issues and find mutually beneficial resolutions,” the university said.

Not an isolated incident

Earlier this month student protests stopped 2015 registrations at Walter Sisulu University in East London. Students were demanding that all returning students be allowed to pay registration fees only, without clearing 2014 debts.

The situation was resolved and calm has since returned to the university.