Student union calls for national university shutdown after talks break down

(File, Leon Sadiki/City Press)
(File, Leon Sadiki/City Press)

*Aspects of this story have been corrected.

The South African Union of Students (SAUS) has called for a national shutdown of all universities after talks with the Department of Higher Education and Training seemingly failed, according to the union.

The shutdown call follows a purported breakdown in talks between the department, SAUS, Student Representative Council (SRC) presidents and secretary-generals of South African public universities.

According to the union, it held talks with 21 of the 26 public universities of which some students from 18 have agreed to join the shutdown.

Issues of concern for SAUS is access to higher education for poor students.

This includes students from middle-income backgrounds who cannot register due to historic debt, no walk-in applications at universities, students who cannot afford post-graduate studies and those whose results have been withheld by universities, the union said in a statement on Monday.

Speaking to News24, SAUS spokesperson Thabo Shingange said the shutdown was a culmination of issues spanning from November when the union and department held a meeting to discuss 2020 registration guidelines.

Talks with the department seemingly broke down in November, with the union dissatisfied with the department's response to student issues.

The SAUS has created a 15-point list of demands, including the allocation of a debt relief fund for students with historic debt who also need to be able to register, academic records to be given to all students, postgraduate funding, free registration for poorer students, proper accreditation processes for private accommodation, re-opening NSFAS applications for new students and walk-ins and increased enrolment quotas.

The shutdown, the union said, aimed to "bring sobriety to the Department of Higher Education and Training in light of the difficult and demoralising realities of student issues on the ground".

The department has been approached for comment. This will be added once received.

On Sunday, Minister Blade Ndzimande posted a reply to all 15 of the union's demands, saying "I hope that the channels of engagement between SRCs, universities and the department are sufficiently open to allow for continued engagement on medium, and longer-term issues as well as any urgent matters," Ndzimande said. 

He added, "In the mean time I urge that we work together to ensure a smooth start to the academic year that allows students the best possible opportunities and support for success".

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story reported that the shutdown had spread to the University of the Western Cape (UWC). No reported incidents occured at UWC on Monday.

UWC spokesperson Gasant Abarder said the university and its SRC welcomed first-year students for orientation on a peaceful day.

He said no planned protests had taken place.

"There was no talk of a shutdown... all in all it was a very pleasant day," Abarder said.

*This story has been updated, and also includes comment from the University of the Western Cape.

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