Students protest over 8% tuition fees hike decision

Several universities in South Africa shut down or faced disruptions as student protests erupted in the wake of last Monday’s long-awaited recommendation by Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande to allow universities to raise fees for 2017 by up to 8%.

In addition, the minister announced that fees for students qualifying for funding under the National Student Financial Aid Scheme or NSFAS, as well as for the ‘missing middle’ – students whose families earn more than the NSFAS threshold but not enough to afford university fees – would not increase in 2017.

“To ensure that such inflation-linked fee adjustments on the 2015 fee baseline are affordable to financially needy students‚ government is committed to finding the resources to support children of all poor‚ working- and middle-class families – those with a household income of up to R600,000 [US$43,700] per annum – with subsidy funding to cover the gap between the 2015 fee and the adjusted 2017 fee at their institution. This will be done for fee increments up to 8%.”

Local media reported that the government would need to raise around R2.5 billion (US$182 million) to pay fee increases on behalf of three-quarters of undergraduate students.

Monday’s announcement – an interim measure while a presidential commission looking into the feasibility of free higher education completes its work – attempts to balance the demands of students seeking free education, the financial needs of universities, and the recommendations of the Council on Higher Education on a consumer-based price index adjustment.

Calls for national shutdown

Despite government agreeing to carry the costs of the 8% increase for many, students were largely dissatisfied with the minister’s announcement, with some student leaders calling for a nationwide shutdown.

Protest action by students on Tuesday prompted the closure of the universities of Cape Town and the Free State, the Tygerberg campus of Stellenbosch University, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and at least two campuses of the Tshwane University of Technology.

Classes were disrupted at the University of Pretoria. At the University of the Witwatersrand and North-West University, clashes were reported between police and students.

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which recently resumed classes after a two-week shutdown linked to protests, students from the Pietermaritzburg campus marched peacefully to the provincial legislature to hand over a memorandum.

The opposition Democratic Alliance Students Organisation, or DASO, urged students to focus on the plight of poor students and not to be misled into protesting on behalf of a 0% fee increase that would benefit all students, including those who can afford higher education.

“We agree with the minister that support must go towards the poor and ‘missing middle’ and not those who can already pay,” said DASO leader Yusuf Cassim.

But the ANC Youth League – a body of the ruling African National Congress – rejected the 8% increase. And so came about an odd situation in which the official opposition’s youth supported the ruling party, while the ruling party’s youth league did not.

A tricky situation

In Monday’s statement, Nzimande acknowledged the role of the commission in developing proposals for a long-term funding model and called for it to be allowed to complete its work. But he noted that universities would not be able to operate with less money than they currently have.

“Currently, our universities face an extremely difficult financial situation. The effects of last year’s moratorium on fee adjustments and the extra costs associated with insourcing have both added to these challenges,” he said.

The immediate task was to ensure continuity in improving access to post-school education and to strengthen the quality of learning and teaching‚ without eroding the financial sustainability of the sector.

Nzimande said the government would need to reprioritise funding from other programmes to get more support for higher education.

Universities welcome announcement

The announcement was welcomed by Universities South Africa or USAf, which represents the country’s 26 public universities. It confirmed that each university council would consider the advice and act upon it.

USAf Chief Executive Officer Professor Ahmed Bawa said: “As required by the Constitution of South Africa, this interim measure facilitates in a small way the progressive access to higher education for all while a more permanent solution is found.

“That provision [education for all] in the Constitution must be seen as the guiding light as we head into the future.”

Bawa said extended state subsidies to universities would ensure that for those students at highest financial risk, there was effectively a 0% increase in tuition fees for 2017. The continuing growth in state spending on NSFAS would help enormously to address the needs of the poorest students.

USAf said an 8% increase guaranteed the financial sustainability of at least 16 universities in 2017 that could have suffered if a 6% maximum increase had been adopted. Bawa said a major concern now was to safeguard South Africa’s higher education beyond 2017.

Dr Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said the institution appreciated the minister’s commitment that government would cover the full 8% increment needed for NSFAS students and those in middle-income households.

While the university had long raised funds to support middle-income students, Price said, this was the first time government had, “thus recognising its responsibility to ensure affordability for this group too”.

At the University of Johannesburg, where about 75% of students will have a 0% fee increase in 2017, Vice-chancellor Professor Ihron Rensburg also welcomed the announcement. “This is very good news that bodes well for the higher education sector going into the future.”

Rensburg said universities, together with the Department of Higher Education and Training, would continue to mobilise institutional and private sector financial support for students not covered by NSFAS – specifically those students whose family incomes are above the NSFAS threshold, but who cannot afford fees on their own.

Show us the money

Although she welcomed the ministry’s undertaking, Professor Belinda Bozzoli, the Democratic Alliance shadow minister for higher education and training, said there was no clear indication that government funding to support poor, deserving students actually existed.

This concern was based on Nzimande’s comment that he “hopes” Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan will announce funding to assist students in the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement, expected at the end of October.

“Making such an announcement without a commitment from the Treasury verges on the irresponsible,” said Bozzoli in a statement. There was no assurance that the higher education sector would not again have to pay for all or a part of the additional support to students.

“Last year, the ‘no fee increase’ announcement was made by the President [Jacob Zuma] in a high-handed manner which usurped the autonomy of universities and with little sense of the real costs or of who would pay for it.”

As a result, some universities had to pay for some of the costs, and an additional portion of funding came from the higher education budget itself. A fund meant to support historically disadvantaged universities had to be raided, she said.

“This cannot be allowed to happen a second time.” Bozzoli called on Gordhan to clarify whether the higher education budget would be protected from further raids.