Student protests: Mangosuthu University of Technology & Limpopo University briefings

Higher Education, Science and Innovation

27 August 2014
Chairperson: Ms Y Phosa (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Mangosuthu University of Technology and the University of Limpopo briefed the Committee on the recent student protests that took place in both Universities. Common issues were identified by each University, and input was also sought from the Student Representative Council, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and the Department of Higher Education and Training.

The Mangosuthu University of Technology was situated in an economically depressed area with over 50% unemployment. Both its enrolments and student debt had increased, and it faced difficulties in balancing its books. 57% of the students were receiving NSFAS funding, 10% were funded by other bursaries and 33% were privately funded. Despite increases in NSFAS funding, there were significant funding gaps. The University had claimed 89.3% of the NSFAS allocations so far. It had boosted enrolment and graduation rates, was working on increasing lecturer quality and research output. The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) had approved funding for infrastructure development. It was facing challenges with students who were under-prepared to attend university, decline in funding, subsidies and donors. Inadequacy of funding from NSFAS was the major reason for protests, along with academic exclusions and financial exclusions. Property had been destroyed on campus and six students were suspended.  The Student Representative Council (SRC) said that the challenges around funding by NSFAS were exacerbated by the University’s Financial Aid office falling short on funding, and urged the DHET to assist with funding and to apply an individualised approach, given the particular circumstances of this University. NSFAS said that the shortfall in funding happened because the University was over-spending, and that in fact this University had already received increased funding.

The University of Limpopo had experienced protests in 2009, 2011 and 2014, with common concerns relating to accommodation, NSFAS support, quality of staff, alleged victimisation of students by some staff members, academic exclusion and other issues. The protests had caused significant damage to property and threatened the safety of students and staff. Some SRC members and students were arrested and faced disciplinary and criminal actions. The University had had some substantial infrastructure development, but NSFAS remained a challenge, and the University was burdened with a large student debt. It had various partnerships and research collaborations, and although its research and writing output was not yet adequate, this was being addressed. The SRC claimed that the repeated and serious protests happened because management had not taken its responsibilities to students seriously, that students were intensely frustrated by lack of any positive response to address their concerns, and urged that their input must be sought. They asked for a withdrawal of charges, to avoid students being seriously prejudiced in their future careers. They questioned why developments took place on one campus, with others being neglected. They asked that a DHET representative visit the university to deal with the complaints. The NSFAS noted that the University had received its full allocation and could not expect more, and the DHET said that the Minister was dealing with the letter from this SRC.

Members asked for more explanation on the assertion by the Mangosuthu University that deficits could be turned around, and pointed out that the position where growth also involved growth of debt was not sustainable. Members agreed that the Minister should be asked to apply special considerations to that University, and said that perhaps universities who claimed once a year from NSFAS were at an advantage over others who claimed more than once. They agreed that a way must be found, for both universities, to tackle the imbalance between demand and supply of funding. Some felt that top-slicing was a problem; others considered it was acceptable but must be properly managed. Members urged the SRC at both universities to impress on their members that the need to repair property willfully destroyed by students meant that less funding would be available for other students, and such actions were not acceptable. However, they also accepted that the frustrations that must be addressed. They asked for an explanation of unequal development across the Limpopo campuses, asked if the rat problem was being addressed, and urged that management must involve students and establish sound relationships and healthy communication channels. Other questions related to particular concerns around scripts, review of marks, allegations of verbal and sexual harassment, and students being asked to pay upfront at registration even when they were getting NSFAS funding.

Members agreed that a task team should be set up to consider the specific reasons for the protests at both universities, and formulate proposed solutions for both Political intervention would be needed. NSFAS must formulate a strategy to increase fund-raising, the Committee must look into funding of universities in general, including the disparity between university registration funds and availability of NSFAS funding. In the meantime, clear communication must be instituted between management and the SRC and student communities.

Meeting report

Student unrest
Mangosuthu University of Technology briefings

Prof Khehla Ndlovu, Acting Vice-Chancellor, Mangosuthu University of Technology, informed the Committee that student debt at the University had increased, partially because of increased numbers of students enrolled each year. There had also been increases in expenditure, which meant that there was a decrease in operating costs, coupled with drastic increases in the expenditure needed for the residences. This had resulted in a significant decline in the financial resources, and there was a need to work very hard to keep the financial circumstances of the University on a sustainable and consistent level.

He noted that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) provided funding for 57% of students at this University, whilst 33% were privately funded, and 10% were paid for through other bursaries. This University therefore needed the funding from NSFAS to be kept at its present levels. Although there had been significant growth in the need for NSFAS, the funding was not still not sufficient to fund all students. The funding covered primarily the tuition fees and residence costs, and there were gaps between the numbers of students who applied, and the numbers who managed to get funding.

The University had, thus far in the year, claimed. 89.3% of the total of R214.87 million that was allocated by NSFAS to cover the students registered with this university. There had been increased successes in boosting the enrolment and there was potential also to reach an increased graduation rate. A Teaching and Learning Development Centre had been established as an intervention to ensure quality of both teachers and graduates at the University.

He noted that 60% of the students attending the University were living in the residences, 1 200 were inside the University, but 4 600 students were outside of the campus. Most students on the campus were from relatively poor backgrounds, which emphasised the critical need for continued NSFAS support.

Over the last few years there had been increased student protests at the University, due to various concerns, including inadequate NSFAS funding, academic exclusions and financial exclusions. Students were always encouraged to negotiate with the management in relation to their financial circumstances, particularly on registration issues. Some of the protests had resulted in property being destroyed on campus. There had been the burning of a female residence with disabled students, but only two students were injured. Measures had been put in place to ensure that this did not happen again. There continued to be investigations, and six students had so far been suspended for these incidents.

Prof Ndlovu noted that staff members at the University were struggling to produce research, due to their lack of Masters and Doctoral Degrees. There was a need to increase the numbers of undergraduate students pursuing postgraduate studies. In terms of infrastructure, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) had approved a R1 billion projection over the next few years to ensure that the University had satisfactory infrastructure in order to reach its objectives.

The introduction of a campus that would provide maritime studies would accommodate students from various universities around the province, but Prof Ndlovu stressed the need for collaboration. There was a plan for infrastructural development already outlined for the campus over the next few years. In the 2014 to 2019 cycle, the University had put in a request for approximately R700 million for infrastructural development.

Other challenges in the University include the under-preparedness of students when they entered the University, a decline in funding, subsidies and donors, and the fact that academic staff lacked industrial experience. A Graduate and Employer Survey indicated satisfactory results and confidence in the direction that the University was taking for its teaching and learning.

The Chairperson called on the Student Representative Council to add to this presentation.

Student Representative Council input
Mr Thobani Mchunu, SRC President, Mangosuthu University of Technology, added that the main challenge for students was the shortfall of funding by the Financial Aid office, and there were many students who qualified but whom the University could not cover, and this was the main cause of the student protests. The SRC wanted to urge the DHET to assist with funding, to eliminate the disruptions that these issues caused to student life. The University was located in the township, and was built to empower the poor students in those areas, and was the only institution that had the majority of its students dependent on NSFAS. For this reason, he said that this University should be viewed individually and not compared with other universities in the country.

Mr Celazuze Zulu, SRC Deputy President, reiterated that the problem related mainly to NSFAS, for many students found themselves financially stranded most of the time and very anxious to avoid falling into debt. Student accommodation remained a challenge also on the campus.

Mr Y Cassim (DA) suggested that the representatives from the NSFAS should respond to the issues raised in both of the presentations.

Mr Lerato Nage, Chief Executive Officer, NSFAS, stated that the shortfall of funding happened once allocations were made to the University, but unfortunately, there was not sufficient attention being paid to the loan agreements form, as there was over-spending on the allocated budget.

Ms Xolisa Peter, Chief Information Officer, NSFAS, added that there had been increased allocations from NSFAS to this University, so it in fact had happened that money that had been under-used by other Universities would be allocated for the historical debt.

Prof B Bozzoli (DA) asked where the permanent Vice-Chancellor was. She noted that there had been a huge focus on the long term sustainability of the University, and this was one of the reasons for student protests, which arose from the combined factors of declining subsidies, raised fees and increased student debt. She was sceptical on the slide presented on a deficit that could be turned into a surplus, and said that there was no exact indication of where this came from, and suggested that in fact it could be expected that the deficit would continue. Each time the University accepted more students, that meant more students needing funding, and the costs for those students would rise, so the demands on the University were huge. She pointed out that although there may be growth, the debt was also growing at the same time. Protests from students may well continue if these problems were not dealt with immediately, as dissatisfaction was evident most of the time. It would be difficult to provide a possible solution immediately, because firstly the actual problem at the University would have to be identified. She suggested that a structure may have to advise the Minister.

Mr S Mbatha (EFF) mentioned that he lived in the area of this University, and the fact of its existence was appreciated by the people in that area. Umlazi could be the largest second township in the country. It was indeed built as a strategic University, as it was placed in the place most immediately in need of higher education offerings. There was 51% unemployment in the Umlazi area, and this was an important factor also to be taken into account. He suggested that the Ministry must be encouraged to exempt this specific University or consider it differently to address the historical debt and match the funding issues. Other factors to be taken into account must include the dense population and depressed areas in which universities were situated. In order to let this University grow, some of the land that was removed should be reclaimed, and its property properly protected. There was a policy situation to be addressed, and that would need the involvement of all stakeholders.

Ms S Mchunu (ANC) wanted to address the systems that applied between the universities and NSFAS. Those universities who claimed once a year had an advantage over those who claimed more than once, and perhaps there was a need to change this system. He asked if there was any understanding of the possible links between the poor students and how they had emerged from the Basic Education system. He asked what the strategy was for financial exclusions, as this was a factor affecting the stability of the universities. He urged the University to prioritise those areas that directly affected the interests of the students, to avoid further protests.

Ms M Nkadimeng (ANC) said that it was worrying if poor students were denied access to NSFAS, and wondered where else they could get funding for their studies.

The Chairperson added that National Treasury would not allow the Department to spend money that it did not have. There was a need to find a way to tackle the harsh reality of the imbalance between the supply and demand for funding.
Mr E Siwela(ANC) said the top-slicing approach led to a crisis, which in turn led to other problems, and he suggested that perhaps the University needed to consider funding less students fully rather than expecting them to pay something, for the question was where they would get that money. He asked what the SRC, together with the University, was doing to help students whose academic performance was poor. The student body must inform its membership and explain why it was unacceptable to have a protest each year, as it seemed to be the norm.
Mr Y Cassim (DA) asked why students were not getting money for books and meals in the first few months of the year, and pointed out that the first payments were made by NSFAS in April. He suggested that the issues could perhaps be resolved by seeking money from other sources, and that the University needed to create a reserve account that would enable it to intervene for students who had not received their money. He felt that top-slicing was one favourable method, but said that this should be spread as much as possible. He noted that the residence fees had increased drastically, so allowing only R2000 was not sufficient to cover students’ meals and books. He agreed with the suggestion that the Minister must waive the present matching structure, to avoid the Universities who lacked reserves from suffering. He urged that no students should be set up for failure.

Mr Cassim wondered if the use of IsiZulu posed a challenge to the success rate of the students in the University. He said it was important to acknowledge that some students came from disadvantaged schools with few resources to assist them in preparing for university. He asked for more elaboration on the statement that there were shortages of suitably-qualified teachers at the university. Finally, he pointed out that student protests were born from frustrations, and wanted the specific areas causing the protests to be collectively addressed.

The Chairperson agreed that there must be an investigative team set up to advise the Ministry, and its recommendations would be useful in providing practical solutions to the problems in the University.

Ms J Kilian (ANC) asked how this institution compared itself with others, in terms of its throughput, pass rates and specific qualifications, and the time that the students took to complete their studies.

Mr M Tshishonga (AGANG) suggested that the proposed task team must achieve synergy on all issues. There must be no destruction of property at the University at all, and this must be strongly condemned. All stakeholders must understand that there were limited funds in the DHET so their demands must also be considerate and justifiable. Management must be open about its financial challenges. He asked if this University presently was operating at a deficit or surplus, stressing that it was important to know this. There must be proper organising and planning.

The Chairperson stressed that communication and transparency between the management, SRC and the student community would be essential to solve many problems. The situation must not be aggravated, issues must be openly raised and debated, and any proposed solutions must move everyone forward, and there was a need to find innovative ways by which the University could achieve greater heights.

Mr C Kekana (ANC) expressed his support also for the setting up of a task team to deal with the problems. That team should take time to investigate and make recommendations. He also agreed that the student protests showed a certain lack of responsibility especially when damage was done to property. He recommended that all universities must promote practical exposure, involve students in the communities, create jobs and voluntary opportunities for them, even in the midst of poverty and inequality. The students’ skills must be used while training was taking place, promoting creativity.

Mr Mahlubi Mabizela, Chief Director: Higher Education Policy, Department of Higher Education and Training, said that there was not yet any clarity on a possible solution to the problems outlined. National Treasury had already indicated that in the new financial year, there would not be additional money available for the universities.

The Chairperson called on NSFAS to have a rigorous strategic plan for fundraising. The Committee would be following up to check on what advancements there were in this regard.

Prof Bozzoli noted the suggestion of a task team and review, but pointed out that recently two other reviews had been done around funding issues at universities. Perhaps those reviews might suggest some solutions for the current situation at the Mangosuthu University of Technology.
Mr Mbatha proposed that other research or investigations be done at all Universities.

The Chairperson supported the idea of setting up a task team specifically to look into the protests, hand asking researchers to gather facts on these areas of concerns as soon as possible. The Minister must then establish a team to move the findings into solutions.

Mr Mchunu confirmed that the protests were a way for students to express their concerns. He confirmed that this University was moving to having better-qualified lecturers.

Prof Ndlovu indicated that the Vice-Chancellor had had to take leave of absence. Prof Ndlovu would take back to the University the call for it to provide substantial and detailed responses to some of the issues raised in this discussion. He confirmed that the University would undertake a number of interventions to assist in paving a positive way forward, in collaboration with the Umlazi community.

The Chairperson indicated these points must be considered, when mapping out a strategy:
- political intervention
- the call for the Minister to deal with the top-up funding
- the University should not enroll more students than it had the capacity to deal with financially
- the question of how NSFAS dealt with student debt and requests must be clarified
- the appropriation process, and funding to be allocated to cover meals and books at the correct time
- a task team was to be set up to look specifically at the issues of student protests.
- this Committee, with other stakeholders, should look into issues of funding in general, at universities
- NSFAS must formulate a strategy for further fund-raising
- the need for communication and transparency between management, SRC and student community
- National structures of the SRCs must also advise on the matter, as it is something of national interest to the South African Union of Students.

University of Limpopo presentation
The Chairperson indicated that the University of Limpopo had also been called upon to outline the issues triggering protests at this University, so that the Committee could play its oversight role and help to reach solutions on the issues.

Prof Mahlo Mokgalong, Vice-Chancellor, University of Limpopo, mentioned that the University of Limpopo had experienced protests in 2009 (Turfloop campus), in 2011 strike (MEDUNSA campus) and 2014 (MEDUNSA campus), all of which raised various issues of concern for students. There were common threads running through all these protest actions, which included questions around accommodation, NSAFAS support, quality of staff, alleged victimization of students by some staff members, academic exclusion and other issues. The protests had been significant, with enormous damage to property at the University, and threats to the safety of all students and staff. The protests had been malicious in their nature.

Prof Mokgalong stated that the University had taken various steps following the protests. SRC members and some other students faced arrest, disciplinary actions and hearings, and negotiations were held and some agreements reached in trying to address the concerns.

He noted that in terms of the infrastructural development, the Anglo-Platinum Multi-Purpose Centre was a significant establishment for the University, which was used for graduations, exams and other purposes. He noted the recent establishment of a Department of Mathematics, and the Department of Science and Technology Education’s New Building to train students and to develop the skill of teachers in the province. The development of a New Physical Science Laboratory which seated 400 people, and also the development of a new student residence, were indicative also of the major infrastructural projects taking place in the University.

The University presently still had low outputs for research, as there were few publications of books, but there were increases in the subsidies granted for research output.

He confirmed that NSFAS funding remained a challenge for the University, as many students relied on NSFAS coming through to help them with their heavy debts. The University experienced a problem with outstanding fees, had a large student debt and was, to a degree, financially “stranded”.

This University had research collaborations with the India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) Nanotechnology flagship project. Eskom provided support for socio-economic research. The TV White Space Spectrum Project provided access to isolated rural communities. There was a food security partnership, working with the local communities on agricultural farming, whilst rural development and innovation projects facilitated the integration and focused on efforts to find better collective solutions. Under the Next Generation of Academics, in line with the Transformation Charter, students were given the opportunity to engage with management on their vision for the University and academia at large.

Student Representative Council input
Mr N Marakalala, SRC President, Limpopo University, said that the reason the protests had been going on for so long was directly related to the failure of management to take its responsibility seriously and respond to the issues that were put to it. He said that, for the sake of progress, the SRC apologised for the behaviour of the students who had damaged property, but said that they were frustrated by “knocking on a door that never opens” and were upset that the levels of engagement with management were not conducive to finding a solution. He urged that the criminal charges pending against the students should be withdrawn, because if they had criminal records, this would be detrimental to their future.

He noted that one of the worrying factors was that there had been quite a lot of development on one campus, but not others. If management had been available to deal with the issues, there could have been negotiation with students that would have forestalled the protests. He said that it was crucial that management must respond to the issues, and it was only democratic that there be ongoing deliberations. The channels through which issues could be raised by students was a continuous challenge to the student representatives. He urged that decision making should be done collectively, not excluding input from the students. He said that when young people raised any criticism of management, management tended to suspend the students or charge them, or disband the body. Such actions would not put the problems of the University to rest, nor address the realities that students were dissatisfied.

He added that communication with the Department of Higher Education and Training was slow, as the students still awaited a response to a letter that was sent to the Minister a few weeks back.

Mr Nage, responding to issues raised around NSFAS, said that the allocation to this University had been paid in full and no further funds were available.

Mr Mabizela answered the query about the communication with the DHET by saying that the Minister faced various time constraints and said that the Minister could not be expected to reply within 14 days to various queries, but the matter was being dealt with.

Mr Mbatha (EFF) asked the Vice-Chancellor why the University had uneven infrastructural plans across the Medunsa and Turfloop campuses. He thought that since there was one executive, it would surely have been easier to share resources and perhaps distribute resources equally across the two campuses. He asked for comment on a media report that there were rats in the University residences, and wondered, if it was true, what was being done to address the problem, which was detrimental to the students’ health and particularly inappropriate as it was a residence for the medical school.

Mr Siwela noted the claims from the SRC that all doors of communication were closed, and asked if the Office of Vice Chancellor was also not open to discussing issues with the SRC, and how then the communication between the management and University would happen.

Mr Kekana said a sound relationship between students and management as imperative, and there was a need for a functional University administration that was responsive and had a positive attitude. He suggested that issues arising in relation to this University should also be considered by the task team discussed earlier, and it should be asked to consider the grievances of the Limpopo University students, and suggest some solutions.

Mr Mchunu agreed with Mr Kekana, saying that there was clearly a need to get a deeper understanding of what was actually happening at this University. A broader study should be done in order to have realistic recommendations brought back to the Portfolio Committee.

Mr Mchunu asked what guarantee the SRC could give that students would not again resort to protests and damage property, and said that the Medunsa actions were not to be tolerated. Corrective measures from the University management should display their direct response to the concerns of the students. He also noted that the complaints that students were not allowed to view their examination scripts and marks timeously should also be addressed.

Ms Nkadimeng asked the SRC what was happening around its opposition to the suggested name of the new University. She wanted to know what progress had been made on the complaints of verbal and sexual harassment that had taken place in the University. She asked whether the NSFAS historic debt would be cancelled, and whether those students would be permitted to graduate.

Mr Cassim asked why students who were given NSFAS funding were nonetheless asked to make upfront payment of fees for registration, pointing out that this was not correct. He said that University management must not undermine student leadership in the University, otherwise institutional democracy and cohesion would not be achieved.

Prof Bozzoli asked for details on the cost of damage to the property. She noted that some students who chose to attend classes were threatened when the SRC had its protests, and asked about the truth of these allegations. She also asked why there was such a large failure rate amongst the 5th Year Medicine students and said it was worrying and problematic.

Mr Tshitsonga agreed that the administration of the University must engage in solving these problems, and pointed out that merely arresting students escalated the unrest on campus. He also said that intervention from the Department of Higher Education and Training would be crucial.

Ms Kilian said that it was important that direct representation should be achieved in the University, and asked what went wrong that prevented this from happening. She asked for an indication of the main tension between students and the management of the University.
Prof Mokgalong responded that all stakeholders of the University, including the SRC, were represented when there were deliberations on issues affecting the University community. It was not true that there was no channel of communication between the SRC and the management, and he asserted that the doors for consultation were always open. The issue of rats in the residences would be addressed. Infrastructural developments at the Medunsa campus were happening already but there were approved plans also for upgrading elsewhere – as evidenced by the recent building of the Skills Laboratory. Matters were being attended to and there was work in progress.

Prof Mokgalong said that students had not been excluded from the University on the basis of their finances, and during the past 11 years when he had been Vice-Chancellor there had been hardly any students excluded, and this was particularly the case with students who evidenced good academic performance in the University.

The Chairperson said that peaceful protests could have been carried out by the students, rather than resorting to violent protests and said it was unacceptable when students lost control and behaved in that manner. As a result of these protests, money that the Department could have allocated to NSFAS, to help more students, would instead have to be used to fix the property damaged, and that would not help the situation as it would leave many students without recourse to funding. She said it was crucial to manage such situations better in the future. It was not fair that taxpayers’ money be used to rebuilding University property that students had damaged – it was also money from the taxpayers that had contributed to the whole educational system, and that must be taken into account.

Mr Marakalala said that in order to move forward, the SRC would be grateful if an official from the DHET could visit the University, correspond and engage with students and management. He said that students on NSFAS loans were still paying historic debts and they were paying upfront for registration. He again urged that it would not help if the University had those involved in the protests arrested. This showed academic victimization and would not solve the problems. He urged that there be further consultation to reach a collective agreement.

The Chairperson outlined that the way forward for both the management and SRC of the University would be to open the space for deliberations, and try to find common ground. The gaps, particularly those in communications, between management and students must be addressed. Working relationships between both management and the students must be transparent and consistent. The Portfolio Committee would look into the possibility of setting up a task team to deal with these issues. That task team should then report back with practical recommendations that would assist in ensuring that protests did not recur.

The meeting was adjourned.

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