Negotiation needed in fee increase dispute

19 October 2015 | Story by Newsroom

The Department of Higher Education and Training notes the current student protests over fee increases across a number of universities in our public higher education system and recognises that university students, like all members of our society, have a right to protest and voice their opinions and grievances. However, in carrying out this right, the Department calls on all parties to act with restraint, respect the rights and dignity of others, maintain discipline, and protect university and individual property.

This past weekend we held a highly successful Summit that reached common understanding on a number of issues regarding the acceleration of transformation in our universities. These include a common commitment by all the stakeholders working for an increase in funding allocated to universities, as well as more supportive and expanded student funding models. Further, the Summit resolved to explore the possibility of developing regulatory frameworks in the area of fee increments. The Summit has indeed laid a firm foundation to systematically deepen transformation, and to tackle many of the other more pressing challenges facing the sector.

I am tomorrow convening a meeting with representative delegations of vice-chancellors, university council chairs, students and workers, to discuss and come up with a common framework and approach to the issue of university fee increases for 2016. An approach must be developed in order to come up with a dispensation that takes into account the difficult circumstances facing especially the students who come from poor families, as well as the financial pressures facing the system.

I urge all the stakeholders at institutional levels to try and find each other  through  negotiations first, and for managements to take a lead in this regard. I also urge students to give space to these negotiations so that these matters could be resolved amicably. Considering the current economic challenges and fiscal constraints facing the country, the Department urges all university councils and management to exercise greater caution and sensitivity in the process of determining fee increases in their institutions. It is imperative that they consult all relevant key stakeholders in order to minimise the detrimental impact on poor students.

Students need to be brought on board for frank and honest discussions so as to ensure that there is stability in our institutions. The management of universities must open up legitimate channels for discussion and dialogue over these matters, and not allow matters to deteriorate, often due to lack of understanding and knowledge of the situation and spurred by poor communication.

Government remains committed to funding poor students in higher education in the context of a constrained fiscal climate. Funding for poor academically capable students disbursed though the National Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), has increased from R441 million in 1997 to over R9.5 billion in 2015. While funding has increased considerably, it is clearly still insufficient to support all poor and academically deserving students. Processes for improving the disbursement of funds, and concerted efforts to root out fraud, as well as sourcing additional funding to support students are currently being implemented.

A recent meeting on 6 October 2015 between his Excellency President Jacob Zuma; the Minister of Higher Education and Training and various Ministers and Deputy Ministers; and representatives from Universities South Africa and University Council Chairs Forum discussed key issues facing universities, including student financial aid. The Presidential task team is to come up with ways and means of addressing some of the short-term funding problems as we approach the 2016 academic year. The Task Team will report back to the President at the end of November.

All higher education stakeholders need to work together given the great strides made and acknowledged at the recent Higher Education Summit in providing financial support and opening up access to higher education for poor academically deserving students.

The Department calls on university management and other stakeholders to engage on these pertinent matters with a view to finding amicable compromises and solutions. Moreover, the Department pleads for calm whilst the relevant institutional stakeholders are tackling these issues.

All universities would also need to consider cost-containment measures so as to arrest the spiralling inefficiencies and contain the inflation within the higher education system. All constituencies within universities must find mechanisms to assist in the maintenance and efficient running of our universities, so that the expansion of the university sector and shortage of funding does not negatively affect the core business of teaching, learning and research; and that an acceptable quality is maintained at all times. Universities must prioritise in accordance with their priority business and the good of the country.

The Department calls upon the private sector to be more visible than ever before, and to contribute and invest in our higher education system. In fact, the private sector is the biggest beneficiary of our higher education system and investing, maintaining quality in our system, and making sure that universities are sustainable is therefore in their own interest.

The Department calls upon students to give these engagements a chance to provide outcomes that are favourable to the system and to their benefit. We also call upon all protests actions to be carried out with dignity and respect for the laws of this country and the rules of our institutions.

I am committed to continue to work with and engage all the stakeholders so as to ensure we resolve all these matters and bring stability to our institutions, especially at this time when end of the year exams are around the corner. Once more, I urge all the parties to give all these matters the urgent attention they require.

Issued by GCIS on behalf of the Ministry of Higher Education and Training.

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