Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor on Friday called on all players in the higher education sector to commit to dialogue and shun violence and disruption to the academic programme.
"I urge that we continue engaging passionately about the challenges faced by all of us in building a productive, inclusive and sustainable university education system. I respectfully request all stakeholders to make use of the multiple channels available to all of us to ensure that we engage in a calm and peaceful way," Pandor told reporters in Pretoria.
"We cannot support violence and threats and disruptions to the academic programme. I urge the leaders of universities and student formations as well as parents to continue working together to resolve difficult matters."
The minister vowed that her department would do "whatever we can to support the higher education sector".
On Saturday, Pandor had a meeting with the SRC presidents from all 26 public universities in South Africa, along with the South African Student’s Union (SAUS), the CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf) and the Administrator of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
"The meeting was held in response to an urgent request from SAUS to address 12 high level demands made by SAUS in calling for a national shutdown of all universities. At the meeting I committed to providing a detailed response to students and the public on the wide range of issues fuelling conflict on our university campuses," said Pandor.
"I would like to correct the misunderstanding that I do not take seriously the matters that students have raised with me. This is not the case."
Earlier this week, SAUS called for a countrywide shutdown at all universities until student demands for financial assistance and accommodation are met by the government.
Last week, some KwaZulu-Natal universities suspended classes following student protests that turned violent. At the Durban University of Technology, a 20-year-old student was shot dead, and at Wits university, some students embarked on a hunger strike.
SAUS kicked off the week by saying it would continue its national shutdown campaign until all demands were met.
The union wants students’ historic debts to be cleared, access to better accommodation and the facilitation of more students at universities, among several other demands.
On Friday, regarding the accumulating student debts and the financial exclusion of students from the 2019 registration in universities, Pandor said no NSFAS qualifying student who was registered in 2018, and who has been admitted to a university and meets the academic criteria for continuation should be prevented from registering in 2019 due to outstanding fees.
"I have previously outlined the process in this regard. Students in good academic standing who have debt and are NSFAS-qualifying must sign an Acknowledgement of Debt form (AoD) and will be allowed to register for 2019. This is the same process that was followed last year. I am working closely with NSFAS and institutions to ensure that these measures are put in place at universities," she said.
"I am addressing the matter of historic debt of NSFAS-qualifying students in accordance with the above process, and I have committed to make an announcement before the end of March on this matter. I am particularly concerned about any final year students who may be on track to completion this year, but may have been blocked from registering due to outstanding debt."
The minister has directed that her department should identify these students "immediately and work with institutions to ensure they can register and complete their studies".
Pandor, however, highlighted that government is not able to immediately resolve the full debt of all students in the university system.
"We have decided to prioritise students from poor and working class backgrounds. However we are developing a policy framework for the regulation of university fees from 2020 onwards, in order to ensure that fees are kept at affordable levels for all families that need assistance," she said.
"I am pleased to confirm that R30.8-billion is made available this year to assist financially-needy students via NSFAS at universities and TVET colleges."