Fees protests close campuses, minister seeks solution

Two universities closed in South Africa last week following student protests against possible tuition fee hikes for 2017. Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande warned that universities could face financial crisis, retrenchments and operational cuts.

The fees issue shot to national attention once again after an 11 August report from the statutory advisory Council on Higher Education or CHE recommended a tuition fee increase for next year. Nzimande has since been holding talks with students, universities and experts.

Students threatened to paralyse higher education with protests, as they did during last year’s national #FeesMustFall campaign.


The scale and intensity of the 2015 protests galvanised President Jacob Zuma to announce a zero percent fee increase for 2016, and government coughed up money to cover much of the resulting shortfall – though not enough to avert financial problems for some universities.

While the Zuma decision calmed students and universities reopened, soon there were more protests around other issues, such as outsourcing workers and the call for free higher education – but these appeared politically motivated and not part of #FeesMustFall.

By mid-April this year, protesting students and workers (and others) had cost embattled universities R300 million (US$22 million) in damage. In May the University of Johannesburg suspended 17 students after a 1,000-seat auditorium was firebombed, costing R100 million.

Now government finds itself on the horns of the dilemma that was always going to be the outcome of the fee hike freeze – how to keep students happy and universities financially stable when these goals appear mutually exclusive. “Some of our institutions are in a very precarious position,” he said.

Also, Nzimande finds himself trampling on university autonomy, as he pointed out recently: “I don’t want to take problems that are not mine. Fees are decided by individual institutions legally, it’s not the ministry who decides.” Rather, government’s job was to provide consultation and drive a fees framework.

The council report

The CHE had been asked by Nzimande to develop a framework to regulate higher education fee increases beyond 2017, and its report was handed in on 11 August.

It recommended an across-the-board inflation-linked fee increase for universities, and advised universities to agree on a uniform increase to be implemented in 2017, through their representative body Universities South Africa. Inflation-linked increases, CHE argued, would balance the interests of students and the higher education sector.

The Treasury warned it had not budgeted for another zero percent fee increase.

CHE said implementing student demands for a 0% increase would leave 19 universities in a worse financial position and, combined with underfunding, would threaten the sustainability of the higher education system. South Africa has 26 public universities.

Nzimande said universities were considering the issues raised in the report and the implications of whatever action they would take. “That was why we were in discussion and sharing the report. The report itself does point out what would be the consequences of the fee increase across the board. We are looking at all these things,” he told local media.

Public hearings

In late December, President Zuma announced that the government would supplement university budgets with R2.3 billion (US$171 million) to plug funding shortfalls generated by dropping fee increases in 2016.

A commission of inquiry into funding and the feasibility of tuition-free higher education was established by Zuma in January. Chaired by former appeals court judge Jonathan Heher, the commission’s mandate has been extended and it must hand in a report by 30 September 2017.

But students have little patience.

When public hearings began on 10 August in Pretoria, the South African Union of Students or SAUS, which claims to be the largest federation of student governance, expressed frustration over delays, demanding monthly briefings on progress.

Students said they had lost patience with the government and would accept nothing but a zero percent fee increase at all universities in 2017. Student leaders have threatened to shut down universities across the country should the government implement a fee increase.

“The zero percent last year was a symbolic commitment to the realisation of free and quality education, which is our ultimate goal,” SAUS said in a statement, and later: “We reject the fact that the commission is investigating the feasibility of free education instead of investigating the modalities of how to realise free and quality education.”

On the third day of the hearings, a Treasury representative said it was possible to increase spending on higher education – but the country must be well aware of the consequences. Since government resources were strained, adding more spending would result in tax increases.

Last week Mangosuthu University of Technology in Durban and campuses of the University of KwaZulu-Natal were closed by unruly protests over possible fee increases.

Nzimande noted with concern the threats to shut down universities, following false claims that the government had recommended a fee increase for 2017. The correct position was that after receiving the CHE recommendation for fee adjustments, he decided to gather the views of all stakeholders, including students and university leaders.

“It is imperative that we get as broad a consensus as possible regarding 2017 fees.”

Minimum 8% increase needed

During a consultative meeting Nzimande, Universities South Africa and the University Council Chairs Forum agreed that post-school education and training had been chronically underfunded for almost two decades – a situation exacerbated by the severe underfunding of historically disadvantaged institutions during the apartheid era.

Universities South Africa Chair Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, said universities recognised that government had greatly increased resources allocated to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme or NSFAS, which is targeted at the very poor.

This was a notable achievement, even though there were still qualified students in this category for whom there were not sufficient NSFAS resources.

Also, there were still many students in what is called the ‘missing middle’ – students from income groups that do not qualify for NSFAS funding but cannot afford higher education.

“It is imperative that we collectively find a solution to address their financial crisis for 2017,” Habib said.

The vice-chancellors and council chairs said that to ensure quality higher education and financially sustainable institutions, universities required a minimum increase of 8% in their annual income for 2017. Inflation is currently running at just over 6%.

“This income could come from a variety of sources including the state subsidy, student fees and a complex array of other private sources of funding,” the meeting heard.

A multi-stakeholder forum that includes the Treasury, Department of Higher Education and Training, the private sector, vice-chancellors and students was proposed to investigate how to fully fund an 8% increase.