Government stakeholder forum fails to end student unrest

A multi-stakeholder forum at which the piloting of a fee-free funding model for students from poor and working-class families was announced has failed to bring an end to ongoing student unrest across the country’s campuses.

Convened by the Department of Higher Education and Training, the forum was a bid to reach a common position on the “prevailing crisis” in universities which has been marked by significant disruption to the 2016 academic programme and violent protest action.

Countering recent calls from student protesters to shut down all universities until the government agrees to provide free education, President Jacob Zuma told the forum: “Work is being done to find solutions. We do not agree with those who say that universities should be shut down while these solutions are being sought by government and stakeholders.”

The president announced that a subsidised funding model to provide “fee-free” higher education at the point of entry for students from families who earn less than R600,000 (US$43,200) a year would be piloted in 2017.

Lasting solutions

Appealing for “sound leadership from all of us”, Zuma said the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education Funding should be allowed to finish its work so that it could help find lasting solutions. The ministerial task team appointed by Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande was also developing a solid funding system for the future that would enable the government to support students from the “missing middle” to access higher education, he said.

“The new model is planned for piloting in 2017, with full implementation in 2018, if approved,” the president said.

A week earlier, the chairman of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme or NSFAS, Sizwe Nxasana, was quoted in press reports as saying the new student financial aid model will have a threshold for 'free' education, while a combination of student grants and loans will cater for the 'missing middle'.

"Actuaries are working on a threshold where ‘free stops’ and it could be between household incomes of R150,000 and R200,000. From there, a combination of a grant and a loan would apply for households with a household income of [less than] R600,000," BDLive reported Nxasana as saying.

‘Minority’ protests

Introducing the president at last Monday’s forum Nzimande reiterated the view that the protests were the work of a minority of students.

“The most immediate challenge we have is that we are faced with a minority of students who are determined to bring our higher education system to a halt, while the overwhelming majority of students are either in class or want nothing more than to be there,” said Nzimande.

“Because it is only if this academic year can be completed and those who are ready to graduate are allowed to do so that we will be able to say we are talking about the future with the poor and the previously disadvantaged in mind,” he said.

Setting out the steps taken by the ANC government to meet student demands, Zuma said the government had been responding to the call from students of poor and working-class families for urgent relief by directing significant resources towards student funding over the Medium Term Expenditure Framework from 2016.

“Government provided R16 billion [US$1.1 billion] additional funding this financial year to carry the 0% [fee increase] for students [in 2016]. Government carried these costs for all, even for those who can afford to pay, and for the sponsoring private companies,” he said.

Fee adjustments

“While universities are the only legal authorities for determining fees, government has recommended that fee adjustments for the 2017 academic year should not be above 8%.

Government had also committed to pay the fee increases for 2017 on behalf of all poor, working-class and 'missing middle' families – those with a household income of up to R600,000 per annum, he said.

“This means that both NSFAS qualifying students and 'missing middle' students will experience a no-fee increase in 2017.”

Zuma said the intervention – which would require a further R2.5 billion – meant that an estimated 75% of students would be supported through this initiative.

However, none of the interventions, nor the declaration produced by the stakeholder forum, have had the effect of quelling protest action which continued unabated last week at several campuses.

At the University of the Witwatersrand or Wits in Johannesburg, it was announced that a General Assembly scheduled for Friday 7 September had been postponed following an unsuccessful mediation attempt with protesting students and amidst safety concerns.

An ‘extraordinary’ event

According to a statement from the Wits senior executive team, a general assembly is “an extraordinary event, convened only on the gravest of occasions”, and is only called when the university has reached consensus on a particular issue.

The decision to hold the assembly was made on Tuesday, following weeks of protests. It was hoped that the assembly would agree to resume the academic programme on Monday 10 September.

On Wednesday last week, two days after the forum, it was reported that security at the official residence of Wits Vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib had been beefed up owing to “security concerns”.

The academic programmes of other universities around the country have also been affected by the protests. The University of KwaZulu-Natal remains open despite sporadic protest action and tension over the arrest of a few students.


The University of Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology both closed last week citing concerns over safety. The University of the Western Cape also suspended lectures last week.

At the University of Johannesburg lectures resumed during the middle of last week despite unhappiness over the arrest of students on the Soweto campus and sporadic protest action.

According to news reports, the Concerned Association of Parents and Others for Tertiary Education at Universities formed at a special meeting at the German Club in Port Elizabeth plans to take legal action against the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University or NMMU if students are not allowed to complete their 2016 academic year. NMMU has been in complete shutdown for three weeks.

Calm returned to Rhodes University last week after protests. According to the Rhodes campus update on the university’s website, classes were proceeding on Thursday morning “although some venues invaded by protesters cannot be used as they are still full of dust resulting from the release of fire extinguishers”.

Task team on sexual violence

Meanwhile the Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training Mduduzi Manana announced a technical task team to address sexual and gender-based violence within institutions of higher education last Thursday.

Protests engulfed Rhodes University in April as students complained about what they called a “rape culture” at the institution.

The Department of Higher Education and Training, the student and academic leadership of universities and TVET colleges and the Higher Education and Training HIV/AIDS Programme are stepping up initiatives to respond to rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence within the sector.