University fees fiasco: As life is lost, property destroyed, who is to blame? Analysis, national wrap

The first life has been lost amid South Africa’s university fees crisis, which has seen students demonstrate around the country by burning books and libraries and destroying other property. The cleaner, an asthmatic, died after being overcome by fumes released by a fire extinguisher set off by marauding protesters at the University of the Witwatersrand. University administrators around the country fear for the safety of their staff and students as demonstrations grow increasingly violent and sinister – with students under duress to participate after receiving threats. Academic activities have been suspended at many campuses, with warnings that the demonstrations threaten to prevent many students from completing courses and graduating this year. The heart of the battle is fees, with students demanding free university tuition. Some academics and university leaders agree that tuition should be free or at the very least that universities should receive significant additional funding from the government. Regardless of whether you believe philosophically in free access to higher education, it cannot be moral, ethical or legal to protest in a way that jeopardises the safety of individuals and interferes with the rights of other students to continue with their classes. In an opinion piece published at The Conversation, a platform for university thought leadership, University of Cape Town deputy vice-chancellor Danie Visser points his finger at government, saying that decades of underfunding by government may be partly to blame for the current crisis. In the short term, some firm police action – with charges laid against students who have committed crimes in the name of their cause – is required to restore calm and order. The government may ultimately be forced to scrap fees to bring the violent university crisis to an end, though it is hard to imagine the protests stopping there. Already housing and other financial costs have been raised as issues of concern for students. There is also far more to the protests than money, with “decolonisation” – effectively purging educational institutions of anything, or anyone, that might have European roots – emerging as a dominant theme.  – Jackie Cameron

By Danie Visser*

The most widely respected world university rankings have all recently published their latest results. The release of the Times Higher Education 2016-17 and Quacquarelli Symonds 2016-17 rankings have coincided with a resurgence in protests at many of South Africa’s universities.

Most of South Africa’s universities have dropped down these ranking tables.

@zapiro's take on Blade Nzimande's recommendation of a fee adjustment of not more than 8%.
@zapiro’s take on Blade Nzimande’s recommendation of a fee adjustment of not more than 8%.

Some people argue that the protests – which relate to fees, access and transformation and have occurred on and off for the past 18 months – are having a direct effect on universities’ global standing on rankings tables.

But it’s unlikely that the protests themselves are directly affecting rankings. Instead, decades of government under-funding in the higher education sector may be at least partly to blame.

The University of Cape Town (UCT), where I am a deputy vice-chancellor, has handed a memorandum to the Department of Higher Education and Training. It states:

We believe that government has not acted decisively to ensure sustainable and adequate funding to address the systemic crisis in the higher education sector. Government has placed an undue burden on students, parents and universities to fund higher education.

This may seem unfair: the government has dramatically increased the amount of money it gives to universities. But so have students. And educational inflation has played a part too. In real terms, the amount universities receive in state subsidy as a proportion of their total income has declined from 49% in 2000 to 40% in 2012.

Funding has a direct effect on many of the indicators that are used to measure performance in world university rankings. With less funding, staff-student ratios rise. Top staff, who produce the most papers, leave for more lucrative salaries abroad. Universities can’t afford to send their academics to many conferences, so fewer conference papers are produced.

How rankings are calculated

UCT has, for some time, been able to compensate for the drop in government funding for research. We’ve done this, for instance, by working hard to increase external income – particularly research grants and donations. This has been remarkably successful.

But not all South African universities are in a position to do this. And a point will be reached where external income, for which there is increasingly tough competition, is not enough. UCT may have reached that point. Some other universities will have reached it long ago.

Universities don’t yet need to despair. First of all, a drop in rankings does not mean a drop in actual performance. On most of the indicators, in most of the rankings, UCT continues to improve as it has done for many years. A number of our sister universities are, likewise, improving across several indicators: producing more papers, bringing in more income, increasing their proportion of postgraduate students – all important indicators of research performance.

But it is perfectly possible for an institution to improve its scores and still see a significant drop in the rankings. This is because scores are ranked and so performance is relative. If other institutions have improved their scores even more than yours, they will climb above your institution in the rankings.

This is important. It’s exactly what is happening to South African universities. Institutions from elsewhere in the world are improving much more significantly. And it is no coincidence that the countries which are seeing a rapid rise in the rankings are mostly those that have chosen to invest heavily in their universities.

The most startling example is China, whose various projects to produce top-ranked universities, such as the C9 initiative, are paying off spectacularly. Another well-performing BRICS competitor, India, spends 1.23% of its gross domestic produce (GDP) on tertiary education. This is compared to South Africa’s weak 0.74%.

After the release of its latest rankings Quacquarelli Symonds argued that levels of investment determine which institutions progress and which regress. Top American universities, which have significant endowments to rely on, and Asian universities, which have benefited from significant public funding, are rising. Many Western European universities, on the other hand, have seen cuts to public funding for research and are losing ground.

Reputation matters

There is one way in which the student protests themselves, rather than the under-funding that caused them, may directly affect some of the indicators by which universities are measured.

Each ranking uses different indicators to measure a university’s performance. But on the whole they are a combination of hard data, such as citations – the number of times an author has been cited, or referred to – and ratio of staff to students. There are also more qualitative “reputation” indicators. These are achieved by asking academics and employers to list the top institutions in their fields.

It is these “reputation” indicators that could be directly affected by the protests. Although they are intended to be objective, it does not require a great stretch of the imagination to believe that some academics who see South African institutions in constant crisis, with lectures cancelled, exams postponed and buildings burned, are affected at least subconsciously.

South African institutions were particularly hard hit in the reputation indicator in THE’s latest rankings. However, some universities that were affected by the protests bucked the trend: the University of the Witwatersrand rose in the THE rankings. So there is no clear evidence of a causal relationship between the protests and the universities’ performance in the rankings.

But does it matter?

In assessing the extent to which #feesmustfall protests might have affected South African universities’ rankings, I have left aside the much larger and more important question of whether it matters.

Universities certainly regard rankings with a measure of caution. Rankings are very imperfect measurements of excellence. They take no account of the contexts in which universities find themselves, particularly those based in developing or emerging economies. They do not measure some of the functions of a university that the sector would regard as critical: for instance, whether the research a university undertakes makes a difference, or whether the graduates it produces are thoughtful and productive citizens.

Nevertheless, the drop in rankings has been greeted with consternation in the media. The coincidence with the university protests could lead to a damaging narrative that the country’s universities are inevitably “going to the dogs”.

I can categorically state that UCT is nowhere near that kind of precipitous decline. However, if under-funding from government continues and the issue of fees is not resolved, I am less confident of our and our sister universities’ future.

  • Danie Visser is Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Cape Town. This article first appeared at The Conversation.

NMMU campuses shut until further notice

By Derrick Spies, News24 Correspondent

Port Elizabeth – Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University has suspended all academic activities until further notice, the institution said on Monday.

University management responded in writing to all four memorandums of demand it received from student groups claiming to represent protesters, and held meetings with students at the George and Summerstrand campuses on Monday.

Following the meetings, a decision was made late on Monday night that the campuses would remain closed until further notice.

“In light of the above events, and the present escalating protests, tensions and violence within the sector which has seen many universities closed for more than a week, NMMU management feels it cannot safely resume operations,” spokesperson Debbie Derry said in a statement.

Students had barricaded the roads and prevented access to the main campus in Summerstrand since last Tuesday during protests against university fee increases.

Last week, SRC representatives and DA Students’ Organisation (Daso) members were asked to leave a meeting by the #FeesMustFall movement. Since then, a petition has apparently been circulating among students calling for the Daso-led SRC to be disbanded.

‘We will render it dysfunctional’

SRC president Nicholas Nyathi told students on Monday that the SRC has been receiving threats and that individuals were being funded to incite students to protest.

Acting Vice Chancellor Sibongile Muthwa warned students that a continued shutdown could have dire results for B-Tech students, final-year graduates, and matric pupils.

The university’s B-Tech courses were being phased out. Should students not complete their modules this year, they might not be able to finish their degrees in 2018, as the courses would no longer be available.

Another consequence was that the academic year could be extended into 2017 and the summer graduation might have to be postponed. This would ultimately prevent final-year students from graduating next year.

The processing of applications for next year’s admissions, and of financial support for qualifying students, would be compromised by a continued shutdown.

The NMMU Fees Must Fall movement posted on its Facebook page that it was not happy with the university’s commitment to engage with students, as the same promises had been made last year.

It acknowledged that the NMMU was not able to implement free education and that this was the result of national policy. It would however not allow the university to help develop policies that perpetuated the cycle of poverty.

“For as long as the system denies access to poor students we will render it dysfunctional,” it said.

It said its shutdown would continue until NMMU implemented “free and decolonised” education. – News24


Police keep watch at UFS

From News24

Bloemfontein – Police were monitoring the situation at the University of Free State on Tuesday, as classes remain suspended.

Hundreds of students protested at the university’s main campus, while police kept a close watch.

The university had been expected to resume its normal activities on Tuesday.

Cartoon courtesy of Twitter @brandanrey
Cartoon courtesy of Twitter @brandanrey

However, university management suspended academic activities due to the ongoing protests.

“We have sent out SMSes to students that we will give them an update later in the day, but classes have been suspended,” said university spokesperson Lacea Loader.

On Monday, students handed over a memorandum to the institution’s management, calling for there to be no fee increases in 2017.

They were demanding that no students be deregistered and for the academic calendar to be extended due to the protest, said leader of the Free Education Movement, Azive Dlanjwa.

“We also want the charges of students who were arrested during protests in 2015 and this year to be withdrawn,” he said.

The university was given until Tuesday afternoon to respond to the memorandum.

Dlanjwa said if the university met their demands, they would still protest until government gave them a commitment for free education. – News24


Fees protest leads to blood shortage

From News24

Cape Town – While academics warn that the academic consequences would be dire if classes at the country’s universities don’t resume soon, the student protests have already led to an unintended crisis: a blood shortage.

The South African National Blood Service (SANBS) says it has less than two days of blood supply – and is ringing an urgent alarm-bell and calling on its donors to assist.


There should always be enough blood to last five days.

Blood drives at university campuses and schools yield about 40% units of blood collected annually and although the SANBS has systems in place to minimise the effects of shortages experienced during exams, protests have been an unpredictable factor, the service said in a statement.

Dennis Ngongoma of SANBS told Northglen News that the student protests have made it dangerous for staff to set up mobile clinics at campuses, resulting in the loss of 150 units of blood per day.

This, in combination with preparations for end-of-year exams, is negatively impacting on the national blood supply.

As a result of the dangerously low blood stocks, the SANBS is appealing to members of the public who are due for their regular donation to visit the nearest donor centre as soon as they can, because many lives will be affected by this.

“A shortage of blood hinders our ability to save hundreds of lives daily because, without an adequate supply, essential treatment for various patients cannot occur,” SANBS spokesperson Vanessa Raju says.

Blood is used for emergencies as well as treating people with blood diseases and women who haemorrhage while giving birth.

The SANBS must collect about 3000 units of blood daily in order to meet daily demand for this resource and keep stock levels above the two-day mark, the statement reads.

To find you nearest donor centre or mobile visit or call the toll-free number 0800 11 9031. – News24


Dire academic consequences if classes don’t resume next week – UCT

By Tammy Petersen

Cape Town – UCT vice chancellor Max Price has warned that the academic consequences would be dire should classes not resume next Monday as planned.

In a communiqué on the university website, Price said the institution hoped to reopen the campus without the use of security on Monday.

A meeting of the UCT senior management team decided that classes would resume on October 3.

Students began protesting two weeks ago, calling for the university to reinstate students who had been suspended, interdicted, or expelled following the Fees Must Fall protests.

They also called for the university to institute a Shackville truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) within this year.

This after students in February erected a shack on upper campus as a symbol of the struggle for student housing and financial exclusions. The shack was later demolished by security.

Price called on the UCT community to use this week to “engage with one another on ways to begin reconciliatory engagement, to address transformation issues, and to make meaningful progress in this regard”.

Price on Monday reportedly met with heads of academic departments to discuss the current campus situation and share ideas.

He is set to meet with other vice chancellors this week and “will seek engagement” with the Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande.

On Monday, the campus remained open, with the exception of the library.

Price previously said the decision to temporarily halt operations was taken in order to protect the university’s property, while not escalating the violence by bringing private security onto the campus.

News24 previously reported that Price said it was still possible to complete the academic year after work resumed next Monday, but graduations would have to take place in June 2017. – News24


UKZN management condemns arson

By Kaveel Singh

Pietermaritzburg – The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) says acts of arson at the Pietermaritzburg campus are “appalling”.

“Executive management condemns in the strongest possible terms the malicious damage to property that has occurred on its campuses. The recent acts of arson are appalling,” university spokesperson Lesiba Seshoka said.

Private security guards contracted to UKZN raided the William O’Brien residence in Pietermaritzburg on Monday.

This was after a fire, which razed a common room and entry hall, broke out at the residence early in the morning.

The residence, on the university’s main campus in the provincial capital, has been a flashpoint for protests against fee increases.

Seshoka said excrement had been smeared on the commerce building.

He added that there were student demonstrations on the library lawns and that acts of malicious damage to property, intimidation against both students and academics had been noted.

Fee decision in October

“A test and a lecture on the Pietermaritzburg campus had to be postponed. The decision was made in the best interests of the majority of the students.”

According to Seshoka, security checks were conducted at residences in Pietermaritzburg and an unidentified male was found in possession of an illicit substance.

“He was arrested and subsequently removed from the campus. Disciplinary action will be taken against another student found in possession of drug paraphernalia. University management sincerely regrets the inconvenience caused to all parties.”

Seshoka said university management has been open to constructive engagement with the student leadership “in an effort to address their grievances”.

“In this respect there have been a number of engagements with students. With regards to concerns relating to fee increments, no decision on fees for 2017 has been made and council will only finalise this in October 2016.”

Seshoka added: “It is imperative that we continue with the academic programme, as any further loss of time will start to impact on our ability to successfully complete the academic year.” – News24


Central University of Technology closes campuses following student protests

By Lizeka Tandwa

Bloemfontein – Academic activities at the Central University of Technology (CUT) in the Free State have been suspended until October 10 due to security concerns, the institution said in a statement.

“All academic activities for Central University of Technology have been suspended at both the Bloemfontein and Welkom campuses with effect from 12:00 until October 10 due to security concerns on campus at this stage.”

CUT spokesperson Dan Maritz said the institution made its decision after a meeting between student leaders and management which “failed to effectively address the current challenges and implications of the statement by the Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande for the universities in 2017”.

“The meeting served as a continuation of previous meetings which were held with student leaders to find solutions to the current fees must fall debacle, most importantly, our commitment to constructive engagements with our students,” Maritz said.

The university was hopeful that the academic programme would resume after the extended recess, which had been scheduled to begin on September 29, he added. “Management remains committed to continue to negotiate with students and staff; particularly our students to ensure a speedy resolution to this impasse,” said Maritz.

Meanwhile Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) management has resolved to start the recess period earlier, with effect from September 27.
“The decision is applicable to all campuses, except Soshanguve North and South, Polokwane and Mbombela, and was taken to minimise disruption of academic activities and possible damage to property,”

TUT’s Corporate Channels Manager, Willa de Ruyter said.

De Ruyter said the institution will resume October 10 for its fourth term.

“This decision was taken due to the escalating disruptions in the higher education sector as part of the national drive for fee free education.” – News24


UFS students hand over memorandum to management

By Jeanette Chabalala

Bloemfontein – Students at the University of the Free State have handed over a memorandum to the institution’s management, calling for there to be no increases in fees in 2017, the Free Education Movement has said.

Students handed over the memorandum to acting vice chancellor Professor Nicky Morgan on Monday.

They are also calling for students not to be deregistered, said leader of the Free Education Movement Azive Dlanjwa.

The students also want the academic calendar to be extended due to the protest, he said.

“We also want the charges of students who were arrested during protests in 2015 and this year to be withdrawn,” he said.

The university was given until Tuesday to respond to the memorandum.

‘How can you burn what belongs to you?’

Dlanjwa also condemned the burning of campus property at other institutions.

“I wish students can realise that university property belongs to them so that they can refrain from destroying it. How can you burn what belongs to you? There is no justification for students who burn or vandalise their institutions – we won’t tolerate that at our campus,” he said.

Last week students at the university vowed to continue putting pressure on the government and the institution until their demands for free education were heard.

Meanwhile at the Central university of Technology in Bloemfontein students were instructed to vacate residences due to safety concerns.

University management gave students until Tuesday at 12:00 to vacate the residences, said SRC president Thapelo Ngozo.

A handful of students protested on campus on Monday morning while campus security monitored them.

Ngozo claimed university management wanted to soften students up so they would not protest. – News 24


Wits university cleaner dies during protests

By Lizeka Tandwa

Johannesburg – A cleaner at Wits University died on Tuesday following an asthma attack when students released a fire extinguisher in Jubilee Hall, the institution’s spokesperson Shirona Patel confirmed. 

“The university has received a report that an employee of one of our service providers who worked in a [campus] residence passed away last week,” Patel said in a statement.

“The worker was rushed to the campus health and wellness centre and then taken to hospital where the worker was treated for a few days.”

The worker was discharged from hospital and then passed away, Patel said.

The cause of death is still to be determined.

“The university is awaiting a report from the service provider before commenting further. Our deepest sympathies are extended to the family, friends and colleagues of the worker.”

Wits University students started protesting over free education last week following Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande’s pronouncement that universities could decide on fee increments for 2017 as long as they were capped at 8%.

Several students were arrested after clashing with police. Students threw stones at police during the protest. Students also marched to Cosatu House to urge the federation to mobilise workers to join their protests. 

Wits University has requested the help of the IEC in conducting a poll which will gauge how many students and staff want its academic programme to resume. Students are demanding free education for all from 2017.  – News24


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