Students' union vows to continue protests, wants R13bn debt to be written off

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Students protesting at the Wits University.
Students protesting at the Wits University.
Fani Mahunts, Gallo Images
  • A shutdown of South Africa’s universities is expected to continue.
  • This comes as the SA Union of Students refuses to backdown from a litany of demands, most notably for historical debt to be written off.
  • Protests erupted across the country’s universities as students demanded free higher education.

A national university shutdown is set to continue if government fails to meet the demands of students, which include the write-off of around R13 billion in historic debt.

Whether the shutdown continues or not hinges on a meeting between Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Blade Nzimande and the South African Union of Students (SAUS) in the coming weeks.

On Tuesday, Nzimande and the SAUS briefed Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Higher Education amid protests and shutdowns for higher education.

READ | More than 120,000 SA students are still waiting for degrees – because of unpaid fees

SAUS national spokesperson Thabo Shingange said the shutdown continued following Nzimande’s and his deputy Buti Manamela’s absence from meetings.

“We are also aware that vice chancellors met with the minister to discuss the demands of students. The outcomes of these meetings were not shared with us. The absence of the minister and his deputy to join our meeting two days ago…regrettably it was resolved to continue with the national shutdown. The inability to engage directly with the SRC’s is an issue we have not taken kindly to. Issues have been brought forward by the campuses and they cannot come to agreement,” he said.

Shingange, however said, a meeting with Nzimande and officials is scheduled to take place in the coming weeks.

“We hope to address some of our concerns with the minister. Some of the challenges are peculiar to some universities. We have seen other departments and entities been given bailouts like Eskom and SAA. We are asking this Parliament to consider [writing off] the billions (of) debt of students. A number of universities cannot deal with these issues, so we need a national intervention,” Shingange said.

He also said while some universities are lifting the registration blocks, it will not help with the backlog of debt.

Some students were prevented from registering at universities due to historical debt.

“Come next year we still sit with the debt of students. It’s like we are alleviating the immediate pressure but not the long-term effects of the debts,” he said.

Nzimande said funding options have been explored to cater for more students.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) helps students from households with an annual income of R350 000 and less. Those who do not fall within this category are referred to as the missing middle.

“The challenge now is for categories of students who do not qualify for NSFAS. Those who fall outside the government requirement. We have been engaging universities and students on this matter. Most of the universities said they are engaging their SRCs institutionally, to say who actually qualifies for assistance. Within their means they will accept students who are doing well academically and signing of acknowledgement of debt,” he said.

In 2017, the Heher Commission into the Feasibility of Fee-Free Higher Education and Training found that there is currently no capacity for the state to provide free tertiary education to all students in the country.

A month after the Heher report was released, former President Jacob Zuma announced government would subsidise free higher education for poor and working-class students.

ALSO READ | ANC leaders who join in Fees Must Fall protests 'populist' and 'disingenuous' - SACP

Zuma effectively overruled the recommendations of the Heher Commission.

His announcement came on the day of the ANC's watershed 54th elective conference where President Cyril Ramaphosa was elected leader.

Shingange said students rejected the recommendations by the Heher Commission.

“When the former President Zuma announced [sic] on free education it was clearly setting aside the recommendations of the commission (which included loans) so referring back to the commission's recommendations will not assist the process of funding crisis and accumulating debt,” he said.

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