Call for shutdown of universities suspended

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Meshack Mugabe
Meshack Mugabe

A student union yesterday suspended a call for the total shutdown of universities following a brokered deal during a marathon meeting with the department of higher education.

Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Blade Nzimande and Universities SA, a body representing 26 public university vice-chancellors, met with students on Friday and managed to avoid the shutdown.

On Sunday last week the SA Union of Students (Saus), an organisation of student representative councils (SRCs), called for the shutdown of universities, citing Nzimande’s failure to deal with student demands.

The list of demands included not increasing residential and academic fees beyond the determined limit, as well as releasing academic results to students with outstanding fees.

Chaos erupted at the University of Fort Hare (UFH) in the Eastern Cape where, by Thursday, 14 students had been arrested for public violence and damage to property.

Three students were arrested at UFH’s main campus in Alice and 11 at the East London campus.

Students also allegedly verbally and physically intimidated their counterparts and staff, and pelted motorists with stones.

University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) students who had been protesting since Monday allegedly set university property alight and disrupted the registration process.

Meanwhile, at North-West University (NWU) Mahikeng campus a group of students allegedly blockaded the entrance to the school on Monday and senior students allegedly assaulted other students and damaged university property.

Saus president Meshack Mugabe yesterday called for a smooth registration process at universities, but warned vice-chancellors not to renege on the deal.

“We call upon all vice-chancellors to implement these resolutions speedily,” Mugabe said.

He said Saus would continue supporting SRCs which were still negotiating with their respective university managers in an attempt to find solutions to their demands.

“We will be visiting troubled campuses where registration challenges are escalating…

“We anticipate a smooth registration unless university management defies these progressive resolutions.”

Mugabe added that there had been arrogant vice-chancellors who increased tuition and residence fees this year beyond the ceiling set by Nzimande’s department.

Some universities despatched security officers who violently targeted peaceful protests, which resulted in confrontations.

However, Mugabe said, there were progressive vice-chancellors, such as Tshwane University of Technology’s (TUT’s) Lourens van Staden, who dealt with students’ issues before Saus had to intervene.

As a result TUT did not partake in the call for a total shutdown.

Part of the major success of the Saus intervention was an agreement reached, which stipulates that universities will grant academic records to owing students.

Mugabe said the country needs to have a conversation on how to deal with the R9 billion historical debt that students and graduates owe to universities.

THE AGREEMENT STIPULATES THAT:
  • Returning students who owe will be allowed to register;
  • The department will establish a process to provide funds for post-graduate students;
  • The department will provide meal allowances to students staying off-campus this year;
  • National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) allowances will increase at the consumer price index rate;
  • Nsfas will reopen bursary applications for new students;
  • Universities will not reduce enrolment quotas; and
  • Universities will reverse their decision to increase fees above inflation without consulting SRCs.

Mugabe said 18 universities responded to the Saus call for a total shutdown this week. Those that did not participate were either having internal discussions with management or had resolved their issues.

Nelson Mandela University (NMU) student leaders decided to engage with management instead of protesting.

NMU was among 26 universities contacted by City Press on Thursday to establish whether they were affected by the Saus action.

Fifteen universities responded, with only five confirming that they had been affected by student protests. They included UFH, Walter Sisulu University, NWU, UKZN and the University of Limpopo.

Thembalethu Nyikilana, president of the SRC at NMU, confirmed to City Press on Friday that they did not embark on a protest because the representative council was satisfied with the level of engagement with management in trying to resolve their issues.

He said the Saus demands resonated with NMU students and warned that their position for peaceful negotiation could change if the outcome was not in their favour.

NMU spokesperson Zandile Mbabela confirmed that the university was not affected by the Saus call because of ongoing engagements between management and the SRC.

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