Addressing student fee block issues

13 March 2023

Dear parents, guardians and sponsors of UCT students

I trust you have heard about the recent student protests on the University of Cape Town (UCT) campus over issues around fee blocks and financial exclusions. I understand your concern about this, and I would like to update you and provide some context.

Issues of funding in higher education impact not only UCT but also other institutions across South Africa. Effective resolution of these issues is critical for two main reasons: first, to ensure that higher education is accessible to every matriculant who has demonstrated academic potential, rather than based on their socio-economic background; and second, to ensure a productive learning, teaching and research environment for all our students.

UCT is engaging with all the relevant stakeholders to find a well-balanced solution to the current challenges, to ensure the long-term sustainability of our university and to avoid future conflict over higher education funding. We are also keeping students informed about the issues and how UCT is working to resolve them.

Events of 6-10 March 2023 led to unlawful protest activity

It is important to emphasise that UCT confirms and upholds the right of everyone to legitimate protest. Legitimate protest is not the reason law enforcement services were called onto campus last week.

On 8 March, a group of protesters engaged in unlawful disruptive action on campus – violating the rights of non-protesters to conduct their academic business. These unlawful actions made it necessary for officers of the South African Police Service (SAPS) to intervene. This intervention is specified in the interim interdict granted by the Western Cape High Court on 17 February 2023.

The UCT executive decided to apply for the interdict only after exhausting alternative ways to prevent unlawful, disruptive actions on campus in the week of 13-17 February 2023, to allow the academic project to continue and to protect the constitutional rights of other students to learn in a safe and uninterrupted environment. This is why SAPS were on campus on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of last week.

On Friday, protesters were removed from the building where they were unlawfully disrupting academic activities, and two of the protesters were arrested for violating the court order. UCT also understands that, in response to objects being thrown, SAPS followed their standard operating procedures to disperse students whose actions were unlawful.

I know the presence of law enforcement services on campus is a cause for concern for everybody. I assure you that they will only be present on UCT campuses to respond to unlawful protest activities under the interdict.

I would also like to point out the important role academic as well as professional, administrative and support service staff have played in keeping the academic project on track last week. Their commitment has been crucial – as it always is.

We are concerned about claims that law enforcement officers engaged in racial profiling. We reject any form of racial profiling and will engage both Campus Protection Services officials and law enforcement to investigate these claims.

We would far rather not have to rely on the intervention of law enforcement agencies. A key part of higher education is to facilitate dialogue and debate between groups and individuals who disagree about important topics. As an institution that comprises multiple stakeholder groups, we can find constructive ways to address such matters in the collective interest of all concerned. In line with this approach, I am pleased to report that in the UCT Council meeting on Saturday, 11 March 2023, mediation was put on the table and has since been agreed to by all parties.

Counselling and support services are available on campus for student who need these

The events of last week can trigger a range of responses in students, whether they were directly involved in protest action (lawful or otherwise) or were on the sidelines or trying to attend classes. UCT counselling and support services are available to all students through their respective faculties and the UCT Student Wellness Service, at no cost to the students. If you know of a student who needs this support, please would you encourage them to book a counselling session. We thank the deans of our faculties for working to augment these services at this time.

Financial sustainability is a high priority to make higher education available to all at UCT

We rely on the timely payment of fees to allow UCT to deliver the high-quality education we all expect and value. One tool for ensuring financial sustainability is UCT’s “fee block” policy, to encourage students who are not on financial aid to pay their fees on time. A critical part of the executive’s fiduciary responsibility is to ensure that the university does not lend recklessly by allowing fee debt to grow year on year. This is the reason for the fee block policy.

Tuition fees are the biggest source of income for UCT, followed by government subsidies (which have been declining in recent years). We are always grateful to UCT fee payers, as we depend on this income to continue serving students – and their parents, guardians and sponsors –  with Africa’s top-ranked higher education.

At the same time, we are mindful of the needs of students who are in financial need, maintain good academic standing and do not qualify for financial aid. We continue to explore ways to support these students. While we are ready to pilot some of these ideas now, we will also review our fee block policy this year. Our goal is to improve fee collection without putting the financially vulnerable through more challenges.

UCT’s student fee debt has increased by close to fourfold, as some fee payers have paid nothing at all. The university’s cumulative historic student currently stands at over R385 million, and more than half of this amount is for 2022 fees. UCT cannot maintain a financially sustainable university under such conditions, so we are constantly seeking new approaches to UCT’s financial sustainability, and we value constructive engagement with our students to help achieve this goal.

I know this is a concern for all of us, so I invite you to read the UCT Student Financial Aid Support Update about measures the university has taken so far to allow academically eligible and financially vulnerable students to register for the 2023 academic year.

The continued commitment of all UCT stakeholders, including parents, guardians and sponsors, will ensure that the university keeps on providing world-class education that can open doors for every student’s future. Further, through mediation with the Students’ Representative Council (SRC), we will work towards a long-term solution to the negative consequences of the fee block policy while ensuring the positive impact with the aim of reducing future disruptions on campus at the start of each year.

With kind regards

Professor Sue Harrison
Acting Vice-Chancellor

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