Student union ends national protest after Nzimande meets some demands

Students, who had earlier protested to voice their grievances, are set to return to class. File photo.
Students, who had earlier protested to voice their grievances, are set to return to class. File photo.
Image: Alaister Russell/Sunday Times

The SA Union of Students (Saus) says it has ended the national shutdown at universities across the country after the higher education ministry accepted some of their demands.

Students from public universities have been protesting since March 15, wanting higher education minister Blade Nzimande to address funding and registration issues.

Saus said it had met with Nzimande earlier this week and he had “reallocated” R7bn back to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) after earlier budget cuts. This would allow more first-time entrants to register. A number of students who were in debt were allowed to register for the new academic year.

“For the first time, no student leader was suspended by universities for participating in the Saus national shutdown and no property was damaged,” it said.

Many of their demands had been met, including putting the issue of free education back on the national agenda.

“The parliament portfolio committee on higher education confirmed the free education discussion, the Heher commission report and student debt matters will be tabled as priority areas for discussions,” said the union.

“The problem of R13bn student debt has been successfully placed on the national agenda again, and a process has been established to categorise the debt properly so proposals for a solution can be tabled to parliament.

“The governing party has been forced to place the matter of higher education funding on the agenda of the last national executive committee meeting. The forgotten free education discussion is back on the table.”

The union said 22 of the 26 public universities had agreed to suspend academic exclusions for the 2020 cohort of affected students, and all NSFAS-funded students were being allowed to register without having to pay the minimum initial payment or registration fees.

A total of 17 universities are already providing students with academic records. Processes were under way to ensure the other nine universities followed suit.

Appeals processes for students who failed to secure NSFAS funding were also under way.

“Saus was able to raise a R5m donation from Ceta [the Construction Education and Training Authority] to fund needy students who are studying towards built environment and critical skills qualifications,” it said.

Government officials and departments had also come on board to assist students in need. The union recognised a R30m intervention from Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane to fund students at Walter Sisulu, Fort Hare, Rhodes and Nelson Mandela universities.

“We encourage other premiers to do the same,” it said.

The union revealed some student representative councils (SRCs) had given up their own funding for the cause of the students.

SRCs at 14 universities reportedly took millions from their budget to fund needy students. Other SRCs fundraised from the private sector to create an SRC bursary fund for student registration.

Meanwhile, the ball is rolling on getting students back in class. Registration for students has been extended by two weeks while 19 universities have reportedly started giving students their NSFAS meal and accommodation allowances. Student laptops from the NSFAS are set to be distributed in the next three weeks. Saus said it would be part of the distribution team to ensure all students received their devices on time.

From Wednesday, 19 of the 26 universities had opened student residences. The remaining seven were expected to allow students back on campus in the coming weeks.

A rapid response ministerial task team, comprising higher education department officials and members of the student union, had been established to deal with specific issues and resolve matters such as academic records, funding, outstanding registration queries and accreditation of student accommodation.

They were set to meet on April 9.

The union also welcomed the action taken against police officers implicated in the killing of Mthokozisi Ntumba. The town and regional planner, employed by the City of Tshwane, was shot dead when police responded to student protests in Braamfontein last month.

Students have also expressed their satisfaction with the public protector looking into their grievances.

Saus said the public protector would investigate victimisation, suspensions, expulsions and unlawful arrests of students in the post-education and training sector. The union would submit a report on a number of student cases.

“While the shutdown has ended, our mandate from our constituency is to continue pursuing outstanding matters through alternative mechanisms. We want to assure our students that within no time we will be visiting those institutions that are facing more problems to ensure no student is left behind,” it said.

“Our interest is to see all students registering, getting shelter and receiving food and learning materials. As mandated by university SRCs, we will be utilising the processes and mechanisms put in place by the minister to ensure we adequately address all outstanding matters.

“ Saus wishes you well for the 2021 academic year.”

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