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The DHET and institutions of higher learning clash with students across South African universities


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The DHET and institutions of higher learning clash with students across South African universities

Wits University

10th March 2023


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Students, led mostly by their respective SRCs in institutions across the country, are demonstrating their continued defiance in confronting the ongoing student debt crisis, academic/financial exclusion and the lack of decent and affordable accommodation. This article will further cover evictions in eSikhaleni at the uMfolozi TVET College, the financial and academic exclusion of capable students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and University of Cape Town (UCT), and the new accommodation issue posed by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) capping the funding nationwide.

Over the years, the beginning of an academic year means nationwide protests, with students citing similar, recurring issues. This year’s protests have led to campus shutdowns and violent interactions between students and private security and (or) police. The annual reoccurrence of protests at Institutions of Higher Learning speaks to the continued failure of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and various university managements to find a sustainable consensus with student leadership and ultimately resolve the challenges facing the sector in South Africa. These issues are further exacerbated by the lasting effects of Covid-19 and subsequent socio-economic ills like rising unemployment and more recently loadshedding. Across many institutions, SRCs have forcefully called for the suspension of academic activities until their demands are met.


Students demands are similar at different universities, ranging from financial exclusion to lack of accommodation. Mid-February 2023, UCT went into an SRC pronounced shutdown, ‘citing UCT’s housing crisis and the financial exclusion of students with fee blocks’  (Lusengo, 2023). Fee blocks is UCT’s fee debt policy of withholding marks and blocking re-registration for students owing more than R1 000. The UCT SRC claims that the fee blocks are a representation of the structural issues that live on as part of a legacy of the exclusionary nature of the ‘previously’ white predominant institutions. Student leadership further explains how the new NSFAS funding model is placing further strain on financially constrained students, to register and find affordable accommodation. When speaking to the Daily Maverick the SRC president Hlengiwe Dube explains how the capping of both the accommodation and allowances funding (over and above the defunding of certain degrees and courses) creates a plethora of issues for students nationally as well.

In other parts of the country, the lack of adequate service delivery has threatened students’ well-being. In eSkhaleni, uMfolozi TVET College, students were asked to vacate the school residences as the area experienced high levels of watershedding. Academic activity was suspended as of February 13  (Kunene, 2023). The South African Student Solidarity Foundation for Education (SASSFE) continues to proclaim that basic service delivery negatively affects students’ campus sovereignty and has a significant negative correlation with student academic performance. This indicates how socio-economic disparities compound for students and dehumanise them further than just as citizens of a country but deprives them of an education which is largely the tool they’re called on to use to alleviate poverty.


Although the most recent Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) reported a slight decrease in the unemployment rate at the end of Q4 2022, the percentage still remains high at 32.7% and youth unemployment is at 45.3% (STATS SA, 2023), while the graduate unemployment rate remains just below 10%, which is still high by global standards. It is important that when reporting on the issues students face at the beginning of the academic year, one notes the unemployment rate so as to contextualise why there is a national uproar when students are prevented from registering due to financial reasons. The high unemployment rate, high South African Social Security Agency grant beneficiary count of approximately 30% of the population, means most South Africans cannot afford to pivot into being private paying students and/or settle their debts with the universities. This supplements as a necessary consideration for university management, NSFAS, DHET, private accommodations and bursary funds to consider when formulating their funding policy.

‘Of all aspects of social misery nothing is so heart-breaking as unemployment’. – Jane Addams

The announcement of the new NSFAS funding model will increase student debt levels as a deficit will be created due to private accommodations, food prices and university fees in both accommodation and tuition not equally adjusting their prices. The students who will aim to hedge this debt through seeking employment, will find it extremely challenging to find a job or on the other hand maintain good academic performance as they seek to balance working hours with school and socio-economic issues such as loadshedding.

The most protestation from students has come at Wits. The institution is currently facing a plethora of issues, namely accommodation and student debt that morphs into financial and academic exclusion. For Wits specifically, the cap on accommodation fund allocation is R45 000 per beneficiary.  When speaking to The Times, university spokesperson Shirona Patel said on-campus accommodation ranges from R51 000 to R109 000  - this creates an evident problem of lack of affordability. Two factors are at play, NSFAS underfunding and the university overpricing. Students owing the institution more than R15 000 are not allowed to register, which suspended Wits SRC president Aphiwe Mnyamana and UCT SRC president Hlengiwe Dube both deem exclusionary in nature. The protests at Wits resulted in the transition to classes being held remotely as opposed to on-campus. There is constant media coverage as the stories develop, with most recently the suspension of Mnyamana and some of his compatriots.

There are three frontiers of national advocacy SASSFE is focusing on in 2023: Student Debt, Student Wellness and Curriculum Reform. The focus is to recentre the issue of student debt and formulate other sustainable funding models. The various cited accommodation issues in tertiary education derail the necessary campus sovereignty required for students to optimally achieve their academic and career goals. As SASSFE we view it as integral that curriculum forms part of DHET policy as this, coupled with student debt and student wellness, best ensures the sustainability of South Africa’s education system. SASSFE stands in solidarity with the student cause and pledges allegiance to the continued action purposed advocacy plan for 2023

Written by Lwandile Zuma, member of the South African Student Solidarity Foundation for Education (SASSFE) Management Committee


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