Presidential funding probe, protests shut universities

South African President Jacob Zuma announced a commission of inquiry into long-term funding for universities in a week that saw registration disrupted, institutions closed and protests over outsourcing and free higher education. Student leaders met with the minister of higher education and training to seek answers to the #FeesMustFall campaign.

The meeting with student representative councils from all public universities was not a great success, as half of the students walked out before an agreement was reached.

Zuma announced on Thursday 14 January that Jonathan Arthur Heher, a former judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal, will lead the commission to look at universities’ financial sustainability and examine whether tuition-free higher education is feasible in South Africa. He will be assisted by fellow commissioners Gregory Ally and Leah Khumalo.

The commission follows a meeting between Zuma, vice-chancellors, university council heads and students last October after widespread protests over tuition costs and outsourcing shut down campuses across South Africa.

A task team was appointed at that meeting and its findings were submitted last month. The government has since announced a R4.5 billion (US$268 million) boost to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, for short-term debt relief for students. The task team calculated that in total R6.8 billion was needed to meet promises made to students in late 2015.

Zuma said in a statement that the commission would examine “the multiple facets of financial sustainability, analysing and assessing the role of government together with its agencies, students, institutions, the business sector and employers in funding higher education and training”. The commission will also scrutinise free university education in relation to South Africa’s constitution and university independence.

The University of Johannesburg welcomed the announcement of the commission by President Zuma.

“As universities, we have the ability to mobilise significant intellectual firepower in support of the Heher Commission, assisting it in creating the basis for a root and branch redesign of the sector,” said University of Johannesburg Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Ihron Rensburg, in a statement.

“Together with our fellow universities, we hope to put significant capacity at the disposal of the commission," Rensburg added. The commission has been given eight months to complete its work.

Protests at universities

The presidency’s announcement coincided with workers in Tshwane – formerly known as Pretoria – shutting down institutions in protests against outsourcing. In Johannesburg, protesting #FeesMustFall followers called for free education.

Universities in Tshwane were closed on Wednesday as workers and students continued to demonstrate against outsourcing, one of the main issues raised during last year's #FeesMustFall protests.

A group calling itself #OutsourcingMustFall said in a statement that thousands of workers from the University of South Africa or UNISA, University of Pretoria, Tshwane University of Technology and Medical University of South Africa had continued to protest.

UNISA closed two of its campuses, and the University of Pretoria also closed on Thursday. The University of Pretoria obtained a court interdict to prevent protests on campus and allow student registrations to proceed. Students called on management to extend the registration process because of protest disruptions.

Mametlwe Sebei, spokesperson for #OutsourcingMustFall, said in a statement that workers were determined to fight on until their demands were met. “All they are demanding is a fair pay and job security for the long hours and difficult work they do,” Sebei said.

Protesters at the Tshwane institutions said they were “cleaners, gardeners, security and other workers” and were supported by students. #OutsourcingMustFall demanded that outsourced workers be immediately employed with full benefits and a minimum salary of R10,000.

On Friday, the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, in Johannesburg obtained an interim court order against protesting students, which also empowers it to allow police onto campus if needed. The university also deployed extra security – there was a large security presence around its main campus.

Registration was disrupted and students were encouraged to continue registering online and telephonically. Wits said the university would allow students who could not afford to pay the first instalment to nevertheless register. Registration reportedly resumed when security staff outnumbered #FeesMustFall activists.

Coping plans

The University of Johannesburg’s Ihron Rensburg said extra government support for 2016 would make up for 70% of the budgeted shortfall resulting from Zuma’s freezing of tuition fee rises last year, in the heat of the student protests.

The university had a range of measures implemented to meet the 30% remaining shortfall of R60 million, including re-examining the budget, limited drawing on reserves, and stronger efforts at external fundraising from individual and institutional donors and the private sector.

“Our concern is that income cuts should not over time lead to deterioration in spending on research or teaching,” said Rensburg.

On outsourcing, he added that the University of Johannesburg had begun insourcing all outsourced services, a process expected to be completed in 2017, and had given ancillary workers additional benefits that would ensure decent work and decent pay as well as ending real or perceived exploitation.

What the minister said

Despite half of the student representatives exiting his meeting on Thursday, Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande told reporters there were some positives.

“We made a proposal that was accepted by the meeting – unfortunately others had walked out – that we establish a tripartite structure made up of representatives from students, representatives from my department and representatives from the vice-chancellors, to go through all these issues, with time frames,” Nzimande said. The tripartite committee would report in a month.

Earlier in the week Nzimande encouraged students who failed to go to university to consider other options in the post-school education and training system. He said there were 212,472 new entrant opportunities at universities for 2016.

There were also 133,000 engineering and business studies opportunities at South Africa’s 50 technical and vocational colleges, nearly 89,000 occupationally-directed opportunities in collaboration with colleges, sector education authorities and employers, 31,000 new artisan learners to be registered, and 52,000 other programme places.