R30m cost of campus chaos

Two Eastern Cape university vice-chancellors are sitting on a knife-edge as they await the release of President Jacob Zuma’s Fees Commission.

They said that fiery student riots on their volatile campuses have already laid waste R30-million in educational assets and materials.

The most visible damage is four burnt out academic buildings.

The Saturday Dispatch this week sat down with Walter Sisulu University (WSU) vice-chancellor, Professor Rob Midgley and his counterpart, University of Fort Hare’s (UFH) Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, who spoke candidly about angry students’ campus carnage.

The university heads said that a R30-million damages bill had already been run up by rioting students over the past two years.

The cause of these protests are national funding issues around student allocations from the National Student Funding Aid Scheme (NSFAS), scope of student funding, the administration of student funding and who qualified and who did not qualify for loans.

“The university has become the battle-ground for the fight between students and NSFAS or the fight between students and the Presidential Commission,” Professor Midgley said.

Some of the damages go back to the #FeesMustFall student uprising that started in October 2015 at the University of Witwatersrand SRC, which spread quickly to other SA universities.

Last year, at the height of the #FeesMustFall movement, millions of rands worth of damage was caused when a building at the UFH’s Alice campus was set on fire by rioting students.

The Equicent infrastructure development building inside the campus was completely destroyed, along with equipment, electric appliances and tools.

Among items destroyed were 20 flat screen television sets meant to be distributed to student residences.

Washing machines, computers, microwaves, chairs, stoves, beds, mattresses, cupboards and other maintenance items also went up in flames. Equicent is the company contracted by the university to build its R400-million, 200-bed student village, which is still a shell.

The exact cost of the damage done to the building has still to be assessed.

Buhlungu said this year alone the university has estimated damages worth R10-million to buildings and equipment as a result of protesting students’ violent criminal behaviour. About a month ago rampaging students set alight a student centre, after torching a staff centre at the Alice campus.

The students, who were demanding fee waivers for academically gifted students and a non-residence allowance for those living in digs off campus, vandalised university property.

The students looted two bookshops, a staff centre and other properties at the Alice campus. They stole laptops, books and stationery and broke the glass door of the bookstore.

“Burning buildings is criminal, looting a bookstore is criminal. Political battles also play a major part in inciting this kind of behaviour,” Buhlungu said.

He said UFH had spent R800 000 on hiring private security this year.

Midgley said even though the 2015 #FeesMustFall movement only cost the university R400 000 in damages, this year was the first time that the university had experienced unacceptable and ill-disciplined violent behaviour from students.

In July, students protesting poor NSFAS service delivery issues burned down a staff canteen in Mthatha.

Midgley said the cost of rebuilding the canteen was about R5.5-million.

In September, another student protest around funding erupted, and this time students trashed a newly renovated auditorium lecture theatre. This would cost the university R1.2-million to fix.

“This [commission] report is causing incredible uncertainty and anxiety. We cannot even do our budget for next year and time is not on our side,” Buhlungu said.

A week ago, a national newspaper published extracts taken from a leaked copy of the report which revealed that free universal education was not feasible.

However, this week TimesLIVE published a story alleging that Zuma was preparing to announce a plan to introduce fee-free tertiary education. The paper reported that Zuma’s future son-in-law, Morris Masutha, had devised the plan.

Midgley said if free education came to pass, it would cost R2.5-billion to run WSU, while Buhlungu said they would require about R2-billion. — arethal@disatch.co.za

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