The government will work towards a common framework and approach to the issue of university fee increases for 2016, Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande said.
“An approach must be developed in order to come up with a dispensation that takes into account the difficult circumstances facing especially the students who come from poor families, as well as the financial pressures facing the system,” he told a press briefing in Pretoria.
These matters will be discussed at a meeting on Tuesday with representative delegations of vice-chancellors, university council chairs, students and workers, the minister said.
As he was speaking, widespread protests against tuition fee hikes took place in major universities across the country, shutting down campuses and bringing class to a standstill.
Most protests were peaceful, but some turned violent, prompting authorities to reinforce police contingents to control the situation.
Nzimande said his ministry recognises that university students, like all members of the society, have a right to protest and voice their opinions and grievances.
“However, in carrying out this right, the department calls on all parties to act with restraint, respect the rights and dignity of others, maintain discipline, and protect university and individual property,” he said.
The minister urged all the stakeholders at institutional levels to try and find each other through negotiations first, and for managements to take a lead in this regard.
“I also urge students to give space to these negotiations so that these matters could be resolved amicably. Considering the current economic challenges and fiscal constraints facing the country, the department urges all university councils and management to exercise greater caution and sensitivity in the process of determining fee increases in their institutions,” Nzimande said.
Nzimande has been blamed for poor management that led to the “campus uprsing”.
The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) said Nzimande’s inaction “is directly contributing to keeping our young people out of class, and denying them opportunities for a better future”.
The government has neglected the higher education system for 20 years and Nzimande appears to be absent whenever the crunch comes, and has done little that is preemptive to address the situation even though he has been warned about it for years, said Belinda Bozzoli, DA Shadow Minister of Higher Education and Training.
But Nzimande deferred the blame for the problem to universities.
“Uptil now, the issue of fees is not a matter for the department, it’s a matter for the universities. Fees are determined by the institutions themselves,” Nzimande said.
“People sometimes create a straw man, and then they shoot the straw man down,”the minister said.
But universities disagreed, saying they had to raise tuition fees when they are increasingly struggling to operate without sufficient funding.
“It is now time for decisive action to address the funding shortage which essentially denies poorer students a tertiary education and therefore an opportunity to improve their lives,” the DA said.
The SA National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) reportedly is short of 51 billion rand (about about 3.9 billion US dollars) to fund poor students.
To cope with the situation, universities are planning 10 to 50 percent tuition fees for the 2016 school year. Some universities demand that students must first make the “minimum initial payment”, the lump sum students are expected to pay at the start of each year, which they feel is “exhorbitant”.
Nzimande denied that funding for poor students has declined. He said the NSFAS funding has increased from 441 million rand (about 33 million dollars in 1997 to 9.5 billion rand (about 720 million dollars) in 2015.
“Government remains committed to funding poor students in higher education in the context of a constrained fiscal climate,” he said.
He urged the private sector to be more visible than ever before, and to contribute and invest in the higher education system.
“In fact, the private sector is the biggest beneficiary of our higher education system and investing, maintaining quality in our system, and making sure that universities are sustainable is therefore in their own interest,” the minister noted. Enditem