STUDENTS MUST APPRECIATE GOVERNMENT’S INTERVENTION ON THE 2017 FEE ADJUSTMENTS

2016-09-21 17:31

It is utterly shocking and uncalled-for the manner in which students at our institutions of higher learning have been conducting themselves at some universities following the Minister of Higher Education and Training’s recent announcement on what government is doing and how his department will be intervening to assist students from the poor, working and the middle class families with funding in the year 2017.

It can never be right and it is completely unacceptable that every time students opt to protest, they see a need to destroy property. The destruction of property and hurling of insults at managers and leaders by students does not bring any of us closer to the solutions we are seeking, irrespective of the nature of the challenges we are facing. This message has become a song sung by almost everyone every day now, but it seems to be falling on deaf ears. One starts to wonder whether students are listening to these kind of messages, or is there a possibility they just don’t care?

This “don’t care” attitude is what one picks from some students every time they get an opportunity to provide sound-bites to the media on the ground during these violent protests. It is startling some of the statements these students make. It is however this kind of attitude that will bring the higher education system, and ultimately this country to its knees.

This writer attended the media briefing in Pretoria where Minister Nzimande took the media and the country through the plans put in place by government to address the 2017 fee support to students from poor, working and the middle class families. I attended the briefing not only because I am an employee in Dr Nzimande’s higher education and training department, but because I wanted to get the feel of the environment during the briefing and hear the statement from the horse’s mouth. But also more importantly, I attended the minister’s briefing because I did not want to get first hand reports from the media.

Without getting too much into it, what role is the media playing in assisting not just government, but South Africa at large to calm the current situation at our institutions of higher learning?

It is so disappointing to read and listen to some of the media reports and the questions journalists ask regarding the fee free education matter, particularly during television and radio interviews. You listen to these interviews you will be convinced some of the media houses are acting as the mouthpiece of the #feesmustfall movement. How about the media unpacking the work government has done and continues doing to address the current challenges in the higher education system? Our media can be so negative at times and unnecessarily fuel fire to the challenges this country is facing.

Minister Nzimande tirelessly spent hours doing interviews with a variety of media houses on the same day he briefed the media and later in the evening of the same date he was on eNCA’s Justice Factor for an interview on the same matter.

I had a late night sleep because I wanted to watch the Justice Factor interview with Minister Nzimande. One gets a view that the manner in which questions were asked by the host, his point was to probably embarrass and portray the Minister and his department as having failed to meet the demands of students. The host tried so hard to portray the Minister and his department as not taking full responsibility and passing the buck to universities. This is not to rubbish the host; I enjoy reading the host’s articles in print media, it is just that the host was quite disappointing during this interview.

On the other hand, one cannot help but doubt whether our students, particularly those currently busy protesting took time to engage the minister’s statement released on the day of the announcement. The Department of Higher Education and Training made sure the minister’s statement was shared on all platforms available, particularly for students at various Universities and Technical and Vocational Education and Training Colleges.

I strongly feel that had student representatives and their constituency made time to genuinely engage the statement and reflect on what government is offering as an intervention, none of these protests would be taking place.

The Presidential Commission of inquiry into higher education and training funding, which includes universities, and Technical and Vocational Education and Training Colleges has been established. This and the substantial increases in funding to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme since 2010 should be a demonstration to students how committed and seriously government takes free post-school education for the poor and working class as called for by the Constitution. The Presidential Commission is to advise on systemic and long-term measures to achieve a far-reaching reconstitution of the entire post-school education and training funding system, thereby enabling South Africans to access higher education.

We need to allow this commission to complete its work, please.

The following is worth quoting from the Minister’s statement on student funding.

“We have looked at the challenges at hand from all sides and have concluded that the best approach would be to allow universities individually to determine the level of increase that their institutions will require to ensure that they continue to operate effectively and at least maintain existing quality – with the caution that this has to also take into account affordability to students, and therefore has to be transparent, reasonable and related to inflation-linked adjustments. Our recommendation is that the fee adjustment should not go above 8%”.

The latter is what the minister said as he went through his statement and probably what students chose to listen to and ignored the rest of what was said.

What students seem to have missed immediately after the above paragraph is the following:

“To ensure that such inflation-linked fee adjustment on the 2015 fee baseline are affordable to financially needy student, government is committed to finding the resources to support children of all poor, working and middle class families – those with a household income of up to R600 000 per annum - with subsidy funding to cover the gap between the 2015 fee and the adjusted 2017 fee at their institution. This will be done for fee increments up to 8%. This will in effect mean that all National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) qualifying students, as well as the so-called missing middle, that is, students whose families earn above the NSFAS threshold but who are unable to support their children to access higher education, will experience no fee increases in 2017”, said the Minister. It really does not get any easier than this to understand this intervention by government.

Immediately after this the main question, particularly by different media houses, was but where will the money come from? Following this question the Finance Ministry issued a statement concurring with Minister Nzimande’s statement and affirming that indeed government is sourcing money to make up for this shortfall in 2017.

We cannot take away the fact that this decision by government is a huge relief to parents and particularly to the same students who are currently up in arms protesting at different universities.

It is quite critical though that these students must realise that should they blindly continue protesting in this manner, they are not only delaying their future but protesting on behalf of those students whose families have got all the means to afford higher education which they don’t want to pay.

Our country is highly economically skewed and this intervention by government is mainly for students from poor, working and middle class families. Wealthy families must under the circumstances continue paying fees for their children.

The Student Representative Council at each and every university in the country should really make time to genuinely engage the document together with their constituency.

Only if this is done genuinely, and I mean genuinely, our students will realise the massive intervention government is making in this matter.

We really cannot continue like this. We cannot have a situation where there is no order at all at our institutions of higher learning irrespective of mechanisms government continues putting in place to deal with the challenges.

We have in this case seen and continue seeing maniacs masquerading as students to hijack and exploit a legitimate course. No student in their right mind can turn so violent to even destroy property in a manner we have been witnessing across institutions of higher learning in this country.

If we continue like this, we will end up collapsing the entire post-school education and training system with no future for our children.

Parents also watch television and follow the news at home. Surely parents do see these nonsensical acts some students have resorted to.

We must therefore encourage parents to also play a huge role in calming the situation by talking to their children and engage them particularly on the interventions or mechanisms government have put in place. Parents have to make their children see the reality these interventions by government will achieve. Parents should assist their children to be vigilant for those trying to exploit this legitimate course for their own narrow-minded gains.

This is also no time for political point scoring or party political squabbles.

We must all act with caution to save our post-school education and training sector.

William Lebohang Somo is an employee in the Media and Communications Unit at the Department of Higher Education and Training. He writes in his personal capacity.

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