Two campuses closed by protests

Worries increase over disruptions spreading as fees debate goes on

A fees hike is yet to be announced but two universities have already shut as students protest against the prospect of an increase. Students are demanding free education soon and no fees increase for the 2017 academic year.

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said consultations would be concluded this month – leaving universities and students in limbo until then.

“We have agreed with stakeholders that we should not go beyond August without some sort of understanding in dealing with fees,” Nzimande said.

Yesterday, the University of KwaZulu- Natal’s Pietermaritzburg campus closed, as did Mangosuthu University of Technology in Durban after sporadic protests.

University of Pretoria students met to discuss the fees impasse. Meanwhile, police dispersed protesters at the University of Johannesburg’s Doornfontein campus, where some high school pupils were said to have forced UJ students off buses.

Police were also visible outside Wits University, but there were no protests there. University leaders say the university system cannot survive without at least an 8% increase in funding.

They say the government will have to come up with the money if the students’ demands are acceded to. Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib said: “What we are looking at is an operational cost increase of 12% at the moment.

“We said to [Nzimande] that we can’t demand 12% but at a minimum what we require is an 8% increase in income.” This was needed to maintain the quality of the university and its financial sustainability.

Habib said leaving fees unchanged would be welcomed – if the Treasury provided the 8% income increase. “[Without] the 8% increase the universities are going to have to cut . . . academic muscle and this will reduce quality and threaten the financial sustainability of the institutions themselves.

“I am saying very bluntly that if the Treasury does not come to the party . . . it will have a very negative impact on the university system.

“It would be a very irresponsible decision because it will compromise the longterm future of our people.”

Habib said universities had begun financial planning for the next academic year and would need clarity on fees soon. University of Cape Town academic Tom Moultrie echoed Habib’s concerns about job losses in academia.

“If the Treasury does not come to the party, then the universities will be forced to look upon themselves internally to maintain a viable sustainable institution with less fee income than expected.

“One of the obvious ways they would try to make ends meet is by cutting staff,” Moultrie said. Higher education and training spokesman Khaye Nkwanyana yesterday denied that the closure of the KwaZulu-Natal universities was due to students opposing fees increases.

“Because of the general ripe situation now in this season of fees, they took advantage, but it has nothing to do with fees issues,” Nkwanyana said.

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