Universities hope for more stable academic year

While it is unlikely that South Africa will escape student unrest at the start of the 2017 academic year, authorities are hoping such action will be moderated by the progress made in addressing some of the key challenges that sparked and sustained last year’s violent and highly disruptive protests over fee-free higher education.

In an interview with University World News, CEO of peak universities body Universities South Africa, Professor Ahmed Bawa, said he believed greater stability in the sector had been achieved as a result of coordinated dialogue between stakeholders. In addition, universities themselves had learned a lot over the past two years about how to manage disruptions and maintain the academic programme, albeit at high cost, he said.

However, student organisations needed to accept that there were no “immediate” solutions to the issue of higher education affordability – the key issue now facing South African students and which the protests had succeeded in placing firmly on the country’s main agenda, he said.

“The key issue is that higher education has now reached a point where it is unaffordable for most South African families,” he said. “Whatever we work on will take time and student organisations need to understand that we have to give the processes underway a chance to produce sustainable solutions.”

In an attempt to ensure smooth university registrations, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, had already paid R1.3 billion (US$96 million) to its public universities and technical and vocational education and training, or TVET, colleges in advance payment of registration fees for students from disadvantaged backgrounds so they could be admitted without any upfront payment.

This would assist universities to pay operational costs in the first quarter and help with their cash flow management, according Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande, who addressed a media conference last week to report on plans for the 2017 academic year.

Student protests over funding shortages have been a consistent feature of the start of the South African academic year for a number of years and significantly pre-date the #FeesMustFall campaign.

While Nzimande said his department hoped that there would be no major protests, he said the management of individual universities had a responsibility to secure their own property, ensure there was no vandalism or destruction, and deal with acts of criminality.


Among the processes that have been underway since last year aimed at fostering dialogue for developing deeper levels of consensus among stakeholders are meetings facilitated by the Eminent Persons Group or EPG. A civil society initiative led by former deputy chief justice Dikgang Mosekene and convened by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the EPG has facilitated meetings between university leaders and some student groupings.

Another process was being facilitated by the National Economic Development and Labour Council and brought together government, unions, business, civil society and universities in an attempt to find a structured solution.

In addition to the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training (the Fees Commission) established by President Jacob Zuma last year, which is due to report in the middle of 2017, the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme was being piloted.

A public-private partnership aimed at assisting those students who do not qualify for NSFAS loans – the 'missing middle' – the pilot will fund the studies of about 1,500 students studying in a number of general formative degrees, as well as seven professional qualifications and one artisan qualification for the duration of their studies at six universities and one TVET college in 2017.

In addition, the Council on Higher Education had been requested by the minister to make proposals on the creation of a regulatory framework for setting and-or increasing university fees.

“So there are several processes underway which will hopefully see the development of a set of relevant policy initiatives to address the issue of making higher education affordable for the poorest,” said Bawa.

However, the #FeesMustFall debate was complicated by the fact that stakeholders had different political and ideological expectations, he said.

“For a certain section of the students, for example, the aim is not simply to find a solution to the issue of fees; it’s about a much more fundamental change in society. We have heard the argument that the issue of fees cannot be addressed within the context of a neo-liberal framework.

“The reality is that in a society like ours, if you decide to increase the higher education budget significantly to cover the full cost of all students’ fees, we are stuck with something quite serious. You have to ask yourself: ‘Where will the money come from? Would it be a better idea to invest in early childhood development? Or other sectors of society?'”

National conversation

A "national conversation" was needed in South Africa to "reimagine" the role and nature of higher education and what South Africans expect from it and how it should be funded, he said.

Bawa said the last time that big issues about higher education such as those raised by students during last year’s #FeesMustFall protest were discussed in any major way was during the National Commission on Higher Education which had charted a programme of transformation of higher education for the post-apartheid era.

However, that process, taking place as it did in the mid-1990s, did not deal with either the issue of massification or changes to curricula demanded by more recent calls for decolonisation. “At the time we were in the throes of a negotiated settlement and there was a strong view that we should not rock the boat and especially not damage confidence in the historically white universities,” he said.

Today, these issues are now pressing, as last year’s #FeesMustFall demonstrations calling for the scrapping of university fees and the decolonisation of university curricula have shown.

Bawa said for him the issue of decolonisation was about asking: “What is the knowledge project of the South African university system – not just in terms of research but teaching?

“There’s a lack of understanding about how much that knowledge project has already changed in South Africa,” he said.


Bawa said many young black students experienced a sense of alienation upon arrival at universities and lacked a sense of ownership over their institutions.

“[Education philosopher] Wally Morrow used the term epistemological access to describe the challenge we face in closing the gap between what is happening in universities and what is happening in society. To what extent does our teaching at university mesh with the experiences of our students and with the knowledge they bring to universities?”

Bawa said one of the academic areas in which South Africa does well was medical sciences, particularly clinical medicine. “There’s a good reason for that. Academics have to focus on the daily realities they find in South African hospitals. We need to do that more broadly across all disciplines.”

Bawa said he was concerned that a lack of stability created a heightened possibility of losing top academics to jobs outside South Africa. “That’s of deep concern. If we experience another two years of this kind of instability, many of our academics will think seriously about looking for jobs overseas. In the long term that would have a devastating impact on our universities."

Minister Nzimande echoed this concern – as well as the potential for private universities to capitalise on the instability of the public sector – at a media briefing last Thursday.

“We are also concerned as government… we have already been told that applications to private institutions have shot up and academics have accepted appointments at other universities. They see the system as unstable… We must transform but not destroy the system,” he said.

Appealing for cooperation and patience, Nzimande said his department was hoping that 2017 would be the year in which a “lasting solution” to the fees issue was found.