Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor’s “arrogance” has been blamed for calls for the national shutdown of universities.
This is what student leaders told City Press on Friday amid uncertainty over whether their demands would materialise.
A meeting was scheduled to take place between the SA Union of Students (Saus) and Pandor in Pretoria yesterday to broker a deal and find a resolution to challenges in the higher education sector.
On Monday Pandor released a statement which, in part, urged student organisations to “focus on real student concerns and to make every effort to resolve problems without impacting on the academic programme”.
This was at the height of student unrest at Durban University of Technology (DUT), the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the Mangosuthu University of Technology.
Some of the issues students protested against were related to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas).
“Her statement triggered students as she showed her arrogance by saying student demands were not serious. The death of DUT student [Mlungisi Madonsela] made the situation worse than it was,” said a source.
Saus spokesperson Thabo Shingange confirmed that students were angry with Pandor.
“The national shutdown is a response to the minister’s statement. We will continue with the shutdown until she retracts her statement and apologises,” Shingange said.
Pandor declined to comment.
“The minister has humbly requested not to comment on these allegations until she has met Saus,” Pandor’s spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele, said on Friday.
Shingange said students would not stop protesting until their demands, which included universities dropping the suspension of student leaders, were met.
Other demands included finding a solution for accumulating student debts and scrapping the financial exclusion of students on registration; addressing the crisis of a lack of student accommodation; appealing for Nsfas to fund students who had been rejected even though they qualified; resolving confusion about Nsfas allowances; and providing government funding for postgraduate students.
Professor Ahmed Bawa, chief executive officer of Universities SA, an organisation representing 26 vice-chancellors, said on Thursday that none of the universities had decided to shut down but some “instead suspended activities for short periods to reduce risk to students, staff and damage to infrastructure”.
Bawa said members were deeply concerned about the events at DUT. He said they were also concerned that the so-called missing middle students, who were not covered by fee-free higher education because their household income totalled more than R350 000, were trapped without any systems in place to help them.
“We would like to suggest the need for another national conversation to address this issue,” he said.
Bawa said universities were in a precarious financial condition.
“If they are to be expected to do high-quality teaching, learning and research, then it has to be understood that universities can work only within the funding system that exists.”
Bawa said the fee-free education was working well for those who qualified.
But the challenges experienced related to those who did not qualify.
Students began protesting at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) and the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
At Wits on Friday there was confusion about allegations that the student representative council president, Sisanda Mbolekwa, and the deputy president, Nkateko Muloiwa, were suspended following a hunger strike staged over demands that the university register returning students who owed R100 000 and less.
The two student leaders told City Press that they had been suspended. However, this was denied by Wits spokesperson Buhle Zuma.
On Wednesday students at UJ protested over similar issues but their demonstrations were quickly quashed by police.
UJ spokesperson Herman Esterhuizen said a handful of students held sporadic demonstrations across their campuses calling for a shutdown of operations.
“The university has implemented heightened security measures to ensure the safety of staff and other students, as well as university property. Academic programmes and administrative activities continue,” Esterhuizen said.
DUT announced on Friday that it would reopen the university tomorrow following a deal with students to allow registration and other administrative activities to resume. Academic activities were still suspended.