Attempts by Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Blade Nzimande to ward off protests at universities has been dealt a blow after the North West University management decided to shut down the university’s Mahikeng campus due to a protest by students on Tuesday morning.
City Press understands from a SA Union of Students (SAUS) senior leader that 14 universities have already responded to their call to shut down the 26 universities.
This is happening despite Nzimande’s detailed response on Sunday to the demands of students.
- Returning students funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) be allowed to register even if they have historic debt;
- Accreditation of private residences by universities be revised to ensure students in need of residences are accommodated; and
- That exam results, academic records and certificates be issued even to owing students.
Louis Jacobs, a spokesperson for North West University, said students were asked to vacate the campus by 1pm on Tuesday.
He said this was because of their disruptive actions, which started on Monday.
“The North West University management is deeply concerned about the incidents of violence at our campus in Mahikeng. In solidarity with the call from the SAUS to shut down campuses across the country, a group of students have been preventing people from entering the campus since yesterday morning.”
Jacobs said that on Monday night, a group of senior students assaulted other students and damaged university property.
“These unacceptable actions were reported to the police and a case of assault has also been opened at the Mmabatho police station,” Jacobs said.
He added that the safety of students and staff on campus was increasingly in jeopardy.
“Therefore, the university management has, after consultations with relevant stakeholders including the police, resolved to close the campus until further notice to ensure the safety and security of stakeholders,” Jacobs said.
He said the disruptions have already had a negative impact on a number of services, including the registration of first year as well as returning students. The students awaiting Nsfas clearance were also affected.
“We regret the inconvenience to all our stakeholders and reiterate our commitment to safety and a conducive environment for teaching and learning, research and engaged student life,” he said.
The minister’s response to the student union’s letter of demand came on Sunday, almost two weeks after SAUS sent their letter of demand.
In regard to allowing returning students funded by Nsfas to register even if they have historic debt, the minister said that his department had provided significant funding towards the eradication of historic debt for Nsfas qualifying students.
“Nsfas qualifying students who carry debt from last year are allowed to register providedthey sign the acknowledge of debt form at the institution to which they arereturning,” Nzimande said.
He added that he was aware there was significant student debt within the university system owed by students who are not Nsfas beneficiaries.
“Unfortunately, public funds for the university system are constrained and there is no possibility that debts of students who are not Nsfas qualifying can be eradicated by government,” the minister said.
On the matter of accreditation of private residences Nzimande said that the matter was being addressed with universities to ensure that, in the absence of fully accredited accommodation, Nsfas qualifying students can access non-accredited accommodation. This would happen as long as the university had a registration and verification process in place.
The minister said this was an interim arrangement while working towards a more comprehensive accreditation and verification system.
Nzimande said that all students, whether they owe the university or not, should be able to access their academic records, for the purpose of pursuing employment opportunities or further study.
“This issue was discussed extensively with universities last year, and the department has engaged closely with universities where any complaints are received. However, no student should be prevented from accessing further study or employment by not having access to an academic record,” he said.
SAUS is having none of it though. It has called for a national shutdown of all public universities.
In a statement released on Sunday, the student union said it had resorted to calling for a national shutdown after “student issues have been met with the arrogance and complete disregard by the minister and his department”.
The union said that as things stand, students from vulnerable and missing middle backgrounds cannot register due to historic debt. Thousands of students cannot get employment because their academic records are withheld by their institutions.
“Following an urgent special national executive meeting convened with student representative council presidents and secretary generals of South African public universities (January 24 to 26 at the Tshwane University of Technology), the SAUS, together with SRCs, unanimously resolved that we must defend the students against financial and academic exclusion through a national shutdown until minister Nzimande responds positively to our demands,” SAUS said.