Johannesburg - The fees at Witwatersrand University must fall, and they must fall now.
This was the message from Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi on Monday as a number of South Africa's university campuses were gripped by a wave of student activism against inhibitive fees and the rising costs of higher education.
"I can tell you I'm on the side of the students without any hesitation, obviously excluding the violence part of it," Lesufi told journalists at a briefing on preparations for this year's matric exams in the province.
"I really believe that this country can afford free education to the poor. I believe the students are right when they say they are nominally expensive... I'm saying some institutions are using their brand to exclude certain students."
Lesufi's comments come as Wits students readied for a special assembly following protests last week, while classes at the University of Cape Town, and Rhodes University in Grahamstown were suspended on Monday as students blockaded access to campuses.
The MEC said his department had given Wits R38m, outside of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), since he believed "in supporting talent".
"We aren't happy. You check the fees of engineering students at Wits compared to Tukkies [University of Pretoria] or UJ [University of Johannesburg], Wits is the highest," he said.
"That is why we have given UJ R200m, because we have more students at UJ... so I'm not speaking off the rooftop. I'm doing something about it, we are investing R400m in the higher education budget, not NSFAS, as a department."
They were doing this because the department wanted to recruit the best candidates to work for the province.
"I'm urging the council of Wits, they must respond positively to the demands of learners and they must review their fee structures. You can't be an island compared to other universities in the province," he said.
Wits has pointed to increased costs of buying library books, journals, electronic resources, and research equipment due to the weak rand-dollar exchange as one of the reasons why they had to increase fees.
Lesufi however felt the university should review their agreements with suppliers if that was the case.
"I'm very passionate about student politics. I'm a product of that process and I don't want other students to be denied to be better people because they cannot afford the fees," he said.
"Fees at Wits must fall, they must fall now."