University fees in South Africa: many questions, lots of anger, and fires to fight

20 September 2016 | Story by Newsroom
Students at a protest meeting outside Jameson Hall on Thursday, 15 September. Photo: Michael Hammond.
Students at a protest meeting outside Jameson Hall on Thursday, 15 September. Photo: Michael Hammond.

South Africa's Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande has announced it is up to the country's universities to “individually…determine the level of (fee) increase that their institutions require…”. But he cautioned that no university's fees should be raised by more than 8% for 2017. This follows a blanket freeze on fees in 2016 that left a number of universities on the verge of financial collapse. The Conversation Africa asked Professor Suellen Shay to unpack Nzimande's announcement.

Is the minister's decision good news or bad for South Africa's universities?

Overall it's good news – or it should be. It's good news from universities' point of view. The 8% figure comes from a recommendation by the Council on Higher Education. Now universities will have to make the final choice about their increases.

It's also a pro-poor policy. The minister confirmed that students who benefit from the National Student Aid Financial Scheme (NSFAS) will not pay increased fees in 2017. The good news is that he added a second category of students who will not be required to pay increased fees next year: the missing middle. These are students whose parents earn too much money to qualify for loans from NSFAS but too little to actually afford university fees. Money will now be found to ensure that this group doesn't pay increased fees in 2017.

I think it was a measured statement. The minister could have made a purely political announcement – one that would have been closer to the governing African National Congress's recent support for 0% increase for the second consecutive year.

All of that said, the announcement hasn't been good news to a very significant proportion of the student population. Mass meetings were being held at various campuses after the minister's press conference so students could discuss their responses and plan their next moves. The University of Cape Town (UCT) suspended all academic activities in anticipation of the announcement.

What do you think students would have liked to hear from the minister?

I don't actually think it would have mattered what the minister said. There is such a groundswell of unhappiness among students. It started long before last year's #feesmustfall movement and goes back to the #Rhodesmustfall protests that saw a statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed from UCT's campus. There are all these issues, of inequality, of decolonisation.

A significant proportion of the “born free” generation – those who were born in or after 1994 – has had it. They're fed up on all fronts. The state, university management. We've left too many things for too long. It's viewed as us doing too little, too late. Now we have a crisis.

The focus in the next few days will be less on making fee-related decisions or discussing the minister's announcement. Universities will be focusing on security, on keeping campuses open or shutting them down amid safety concerns. There's no head space to tackle students' underlying deep seated anger and frustration. We'll be trying to figure out the cost of security per day instead of having bigger discussions.

What will it take to create the space for those discussions and for taking decisions?

We're in a very tough space to be finding an action plan.

If you go back to the beginning of 2015 when students first started protesting, there was an opportunity to stand back and ask big questions; to set up ideological discussions. Now we're fighting fires around a group of students who are saying

You wouldn't talk or listen to us a year ago, so now we're not interested.

We need a wider conversation so that we can find each other. At UCT, for instance, there's been a call for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission mediated by people from outside the institution, giving students a chance to air their grievances and share their experiences.

University councils will now have to figure out how high or low they set their fee increases. When do you think that will start happening?

Never mind deciding what we do with the money: the questions right now are, 'Are we open or closed tomorrow? How do we ensure everyone's safety if we reopen or remain open? Should we be closing with exams coming up?'

I think what we'll see is local issues – those unique to individual universities – connecting with the national issue of funding. Those will all feed into a bigger channel. What that looks like, we don't know.

By Suellen Shay, Dean and Associate Professor, University of Cape Town.

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