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President announces task team to probe student funding

16 Oct 2015 - 13:00

South African President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday announced the creation of a national task team “to explore solutions to short-term student funding challenges”. The decision was taken during a meeting with vice-chancellors and university council leaders increasingly concerned about issues such as student violence, politicisation of campuses and insufficient financial aid.

Zuma said the task team would make recommendations by the end of November 2015 and would comprise officials from the Department of Higher Education and Training, the presidency, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme or NSFAS, two vice-chancellors representing universities, two student representatives and other stakeholders.

The president described as “fruitful and historical” the meeting with Universities South Africa led by its chair Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, and the head of the University Council Chairs Forum Mbulelo Bikwani.

Among the ministers there was Higher Education and Training’s Blade Nzimande, who is next week convening the 2nd National Higher Education Summit in Durban under the theme “Transforming Higher Education for a Transformed South Africa in a 21st Century World: A call to action”.

Backdrop

The backdrop to last week’s meeting was a year of volatile student action, which is nothing new in South Africa but appears to have changed in nature somewhat.

Many protests are about problems around student funding – which is generally agreed to be too little, causing exclusion and genuine hardship – or issues such as sub-standard housing.

But this year saw the formation of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which arose in March at the University of Cape Town and resulted in the removal from campus of a central statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes.

At nearby Stellenbosch University another movement – Open Stellenbosch – formed, comprising students and academics demanding change; against racism as reflected in a viral video called Luister (‘Listen’) and for greater use of English in teaching and learning, as widespread use of Afrikaans was seen as disadvantaging non-Afrikaners.

There have been violent student protests at other universities in recent months. At Durban’s University of KwaZulu-Natal especially, the protests turned violent and there was intimidation and property destruction.

Interestingly, this has been taking place while the student movement aligned to South Africa’s official opposition, the Democratic Alliance Students Organisation or DASO, has been winning student elections on a number of campuses.

Perhaps most significantly, in May DASO took control of the student representative council of the University of Fort Hare, alma mater to many African leaders. Last month it complained about attacks on DASO students and a campaign by university officials – as recorded during a meeting – to sabotage DASO meetings and activities.

Right to protest, not to be violent

In the statement after last week’s meeting, Zuma said government recognised and supported the right of students to protest. “But this right should be exercised with utmost responsibility, ensuring that the rights of other South Africans are not violated in the process."

The meeting agreed that “all forms of dispute must be resolved through negotiation and that where wanton acts of criminality take place, the law must take its course”, said the president.

Zuma stressed government’s commitment to funding poor but academically capable students “in the context of a constrained fiscal climate”. Funding disbursed through the NSFAS had grown from R441 million in 1997 to over R9.5 billion (US$0.7 billion) in 2015.

But this was still not enough. Ways to improve the disbursement of funding, and “concerted efforts to root out fraud” and source additional financing were being implemented.

Zuma said students needed to acknowledge the “great strides” made in providing financial support to open access to higher education.

For their part, university managements must open up legitimate channels for dialogue on student matters and should be “more proactive and not allow matters to deteriorate to such an extent that students go on a rampage”. They must also be allowed to take “strong disciplinary action” when warranted.

Transformation

Zuma noted that “current activity on many historically white university campuses by new student movements” was related to concerns about the slow pace of university transformation and the demand to open access more effectively to change entrenched institutional cultures.

“We also discussed some of the real gains in transforming the higher education sector, while acknowledging that there is still much more to be done.”

Zuma noted that some student violence was linked to a climate of political intolerance that occurred during student elections, “with political parties weighing in on student politics”.

He affirmed that universities were “open spaces for free speech, academic freedom and independent thinking”. Intolerance of opposing ideas was against their very essence.

“I wish to reiterate that any shortfalls in financial aid should not be used as a justification for hooliganism and vandalism of state property. Equally, students protesting for transformation of institutions must focus on dialogue and legitimate means of negotiation and protest to bring about change.”

Treasury missing

Belinda Bozzoli, Democratic Alliance shadow minister for higher education and training, said in a statement that the task team to investigate chronic lack of funding for students “will be set up to fail if it does not include representation from Treasury".

“This task team will be made up of several relevant stakeholders yet Treasury, which holds the purse-strings of government, is conspicuous in its absence.”

Also: “While short-term solutions may, for now, halt the violence that we have seen on numerous campuses across the country, they will do nothing to deal with the long-standing crisis of funding.”

A number of government reports had “clearly pointed out that more funding is needed across the board for higher education in South Africa”, Bozzoli continued.

“It is true that there has been a steady increase in funding for NSFAS over the past few years. However the pace of that increase appears to have stalled, while at the same time dramatically increasing numbers of students have been admitted to universities.” Universities had not had significant rises in funding to cover their costs for 20 years.