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Higher education in turmoil

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At the time of writing, Wits University has reopened after an almost two-week shutdown due to a student protest in response to the Minister of Higher Education’s fee increase announcement for 2017. This reopening has however been marred by continuing incidents of protest action.

The University took the decision to resume activities after the results of a poll conducted by the University to gauge the views of students and staff were announced.

The poll, conducted on 26 September, asked for a yes or no response to the resumption of the academic programme if appropriate security measures were put in place.

The poll result was that 77% of respondents wanted to return to class. There were 21 730 responses in total; 16 739 students said “yes” to returning and 4 991 (23%) said “no”.

Provisional results of the staff poll were that of the approximately 2 200 staff who responded, 91% were in favour of reopening on 3 October while 8% did not want classes to go ahead.

Background

The fees commission chaired by Judge Jonathan Heher is due to release its findings in June 2017. Various interested groups have made written submissions and presentations at public hearings. In the interim, the Council on Higher Education recommended an inflation-linked increase for all universities for 2017.

Government announcement on fees

On 19 September the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, announced that universities should decide on their own fee increases, up to a maximum of 8%.

He said government would subsidise a fee increase for students whose household income was below R600 000 a year. This meant that students from the lowest income group (who qualify for NSFAS, the government financial aid scheme) and from the “missing middle” (too “wealthy” for aid but not able to pay full fees) would pay no fee increase in 2017. The Minister said students from well-off families and on full company bursaries would be expected to pay higher 2017 fees.

The extra subsidy meant that funding would have to be shifted from other government programmes. “Government remains firmly committed to progressively realise free post-school education for the poor and working class … and to assist middle class families who are unable to pay.”

Responses to announcement

Wits University responded that it would look at the Minister’s recommendations and consult with stakeholders before making its own recommendations to Council.

Wits’ Convocation said: “It is critical that we ensure universities continue unhindered with the academic programme while the leadership of students and universities engage on the fees issue.”

Some students responded to the Minister’s fee announcement by saying they wanted free education immediately and that they would shut the University down until this was achieved.

The SRC said: “We cannot allow our movement to be brought down to the superficial level of increments for some and not for others when overall our struggle is for free, decolonised and quality education.” It stated that “NSFAS is a failed system” and rejected “talk shops and task teams”. 

Disruption and suspension

Immediately after the Minister’s announcement on 19 September a group of students disrupted classes and blocked all campus access points.

The University decided to suspend all activities for the rest of the week for safety reasons and on 23 September announced that operations would remain suspended until it could guarantee the safety and security of staff, students and property.   

Students, parents and others have sent messages of concern about the situation and the University has responded to them.

Wits’ stance on free education

The University’s Senior Executive Team said it supported “the call for access to quality, free higher education for the poor and the so-called missing middle.”

It said that “if there is broad consensus from the University community, a General Assembly, through the resolution of Council, can be called within the next two weeks to solidify Wits’ stance on this issue. If consensus is reached by all constituencies and a decision is taken at the General Assembly for the University to participate in a public protest, then the executive management will support such a public demonstration.”

Way forward

Wits Chancellor Justice Dikgang Moseneke, on behalf of 14 university chancellors, called for teaching and learning to resume while a solution was sought.

News and views on the fees issue

The media have reported extensively on the university protests in news and opinion pieces. Read more:           

Financial support at Wits

More than 20 000 of Wits’ 35 000 students receive some form of external financial support.

“Wits University and our student body are extremely grateful for the generous support that is provided by the current diverse funding base,” says Peter Bezuidenhoudt, Director: Development and Fundraising.  

“During 2015, more than 100 South African corporate and corporate foundation donors and 300 human resource pipeline sponsors invested more than R400-million in University projects and student bursaries and scholarships. Similarly, 80 local and 20 international philanthropic foundations donated more than R100-million to deserving projects in the University and more than 1000 individual donors donated amounts ranging from R15-million through to monthly donations of R100. More than 30% of our donor income came from the United States and the United Kingdom.

“A strong indication of our strong public support is that 2016 year-to-date donations into the University are higher than this time in 2015. We are committed to growing this support and engaging with existing and potential funders to continue to increase the amount of investment into the University.”

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