Student protests: University of Fort Hare briefing

Higher Education, Science and Technology

10 September 2014
Chairperson: Ms Y Phosa (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Portfolio Committee on Higher Education and Training was briefed by the University of Fort Hare management and its Students’ Representative Council (SRC) on the students’ protests, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), infrastructural development, and the graduation and retention rates at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.  The University described what it was doing to address the challenges while retaining some of the successful administrative practices already in place.

Reasons for students’ protests included infrastructure and facilities, such as shuttle services, expansion of buildings, and inadequate library materials.  In the area of financial aid, issues included financial exclusions, funding for postgraduate students, late payment of allowances, shortage of NSFAS funding, and the extension of the NSFAS application deadline.  Students had protested on the issue of student accommodation, demanding that more residences must be built.  They said residence fees at privately-owned accommodation were unaffordable.  Academic exclusion was also demanded by students with one module left in order to graduate, who insisted they should be allowed rewrite an auto-supplementary examination. 

Tuition fees were also a contested issue.  Students were unhappy with tuition fee increases between 2010 and 2012, which had become necessary in order to harmonise the fees between the East London and Alice campuses, following the merger.  Because of these student protests, infrastructure and property was destroyed.  In 2011, the insurance estimation was R652 356, and in 2013 it amounted to R2 million.  In 2014, the figure was expected to be approximately R200 000.  The University had dealt with those responsible for the damage.  The students leading the protests had been brought before a disciplinary hearing and charged according to the University’s rules.

Several infrastructure projects had been approved -- for undergraduates in physical sciences, and for Masters and Doctors degrees in life and physical sciences.  For student housing, residences were being upgraded and the construction of a student village was still taking place.  Teacher training facilities on both the Alice and East London campuses were being renewed.  The total cost of all these projects was R258.6 million.

The SRC said the students’ perspective differed from that of the management of the University.  Lack of funding was counter-productive. They called on NSFAS to fund postgraduate students, not only to help students realise their academic endeavours, but also as an investment in research output. The sky-rocketing residence fees should be investigated, and management had to ensure that students could afford the residence fees.  Collaboration between all stakeholders needed to be consistent and democratic at all times, and issues should be settled internally.  NSFAS, in particular, should review its stance over the cancellation of historical debt, which hindered registration in the following year.  

The University pointed out that the recent protest in July at the Alice campus had not been driven by the SRC, but by a group of students called the Task Team, which was beyond the scope of the normal leadership structure for deliberation.  These protests had also taken place around the time of SRC elections, with the culture of student leaders wanting to fight management.  Such student politics fuelled academic disruption in South Africa.

Following discussions involving Members of the Committee, the University and the Department of Higher Education (DHE), the Chairperson outlined a way for the Committee to assist in resolving the issue of student protests, facilitating investigation at other campuses and mobilizing other stakeholders to get involved.  The highlights of this proposal included involving the DHE, National Treasury, appropriations committees and NSFAS in dealing with the financial challenges, researching the extent of the problem, seeking to exempt disadvantaged universities from matching funds provisions, implementation of the national digital library, ensuring open communication between students and university managements, and swift action to resolve student grievances. 
 

Meeting report

Briefing by Vice-Chancellor: University of Fort Hare
Dr Mvuyo Tom, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Fort Hare gave a brief overview of the University, mentioning that it was one of South Africa’s old universities and particularly a University for Africans. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) was assisting 7 199 students at the University, most whom received full funding, which included tuition, residence and allowances.  However, a further 2 093 students were unfunded, resulting in the highest number ever at the University.

There had been one protest each year since 2009.  Reasons for students’ protests included infrastructure and facilities, such as shuttle services, expansion of buildings, and inadequate library materials.  In the area of financial aid, issues included financial exclusions, funding for postgraduate students, late payment of allowances, shortage of NSFAS funding, and the extension of the NSFAS application deadline.  The management had responded by engaging the NSFAS and the Department of Higher Education and Training to deliver the necessary services and funding for deserving students.

Students had protested on the issue of student accommodation, demanding that more residences must be built.  They said residence fees at privately-owned accommodation were unaffordable, and were against the appointment of a company in which a private/public partnership (PPP) was to take place.  This had led to an unaffordable increase in fees.  Academic exclusion was also demanded by students with one module left in order to graduate, who insisted they should be allowed rewrite an auto-supplementary examination.  The management of the University had responded, indicating that the policy of the University did allow students in such circumstances to write an auto-supplementary examination.

Tuition fees were also a contested issue.  Students were unhappy with tuition fee increases between 2010 and 2012, which had become necessary in order to harmonise the fees between the East London and Alice campus, following the merger.  Because of these student protests, infrastructure and property was destroyed.  In 2011, the insurance estimation was R652 356, and in 2013 it amounted to R2 million.  In 2014, the figure was expected to be approximately R200 000.  The University had dealt with those responsible for the damage.  The students leading the protests had been brought before a disciplinary hearing and charged according to the University’s rules.

Dr Tom said that several infrastructure projects had been approved for undergraduates in physical sciences, and Masters and Doctors degrees in life and physical sciences.  For student housing, residences were being upgraded and the construction of a student village was still taking place.  Teacher training facilities on both the Alice and East London campuses were being renewed.  The total cost of all these projects was R258.6 million.

The graduation and throughput rates between 2009 and 2013 had increased, with an outstanding 91% of students finishing their undergraduate degrees in the fourth year, compared to 87% in their third year. Retention rates in the University had not dropped drastically.  Throughput rates were low, as many students could not finish their degrees on time.

The University had a growing number of students pursuing Honours and Master’s postgraduate studies, but a drop in those pursuing Doctoral studies.  In 2013, 154 students graduated with Master’s degrees and 31 students graduated with Doctoral degrees.

The University had put in place measures to prevent future academic disruptions.  Although every effort was made to avoid possible academic disruptions and student unrest at any given point, it was important that measures were put in place to address pertinent and legitimate issues that were raised by the students which were associated with a lack of resources that had been found to be the main causes of student unrest.  These included:

 
- Backlogs in infrastructure developments, such as libraries, laboratories and lecture theatres;

- Shortage of funding (for infrastructure development, university subsidies, or NSFAS);

- Broken promises from and within the sector;

- Additional funding promised in public to students.


Other measures included addressing administrative inefficiencies, holding monthly stakeholder engagement forums, conducting an audit and analysis of past years’ memoranda, facilitation and mediation between and among all stakeholders in times of need, and implementing a student leadership development training programme, which included diversity management, conflict resolution, university policies and protocol and team building.

Briefing by Students’ Representative Council
The views of Fort Hare’s Students’ Representative Council (SRC) were also presented to the Committee.

The SRC said the students’ perspective differed from that of the management of the University.  Lack of funding was counter-productive. They called on NSFAS to fund postgraduate students, not only to help students realise their academic endeavours, but also as an investment in research output. The sky-rocketing residence fees should be investigated, and management had to ensure that students could afford the residence fees.  Collaboration between all stakeholders needed to be consistent and democratic at all times, and issues should be settled internally.  NSFAS, in particular, should review its stance over the cancellation of historical debt, which hindered registration in the following year.  Students should be given a second chance, as many of them depended on NSFAS.  The students were pleading for the intervention of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), to assist students with adequate funding.

Discussion
Mr Mahlubi Mabizela, Chief Director, University Policy and Development: DHET, said some of the issues in the presentation had already been covered in the Higher Education South Africa (HESA) presentation last week. The issue of funding to universities had been discussed with National Treasury, so the process was still in progress.  The throughput rates given in the presentation should be given attention, as percentages in the overall system were falling.  On the research output, there was a discrepancy of 19 unapproved units, because the figures of the Department were different to those that had been shown. NSFAS did not fund postgraduates, and it was clear it funded only the first qualification.  Student leaders had access to information to enable them to put forward demands that were well-informed. Previously disadvantaged universities had not been allowed to have reserves during apartheid, so it was those institutions that faced the most severe financial implications.

Mr Msulwa Daca, Chief Executive Officer: NSFAS, said the issue of historical debt was a challenge internally to the scheme’s system.  The ceiling issue could be detrimental to the students of the University of Fort Hare. The funding pressure from previously disadvantaged universities formed part of the transformative mandate of NSFAS.  Deliberations would take place in order to ensure that as many students as possible were funded and given the opportunity to pursue their academic endeavours.  It was tragic that the availability of funds was a constraint.

Mr Y Cassim (DA) asked why NSFAS was giving the same responses as it had at previous sittings.  Bringing the same stakeholders and providing the same responses, was something to note.  There were students who could not get funding at the beginning of the year, so he proposed there should be a discussion with the Appropriations Committee to find a financial solution, rather than excluding deserving yet needy students.  The University of Fort Hare should be given more money to deal with its issues and avoid turning down students.  If the University could break down the R64 000 allocated to each student, how was it spread out?

Ms J Kilian (ANC) asked about the sudden steep curve in the graph referring to the number of unfunded students.  She said it was an unusual occurrence and asked what provisions there were for deserving students, such as approaching the private sector for funding?  Would a national digital library benefit the university?  She commended the university on its pass rates and the increase in its research output, and urged that this be maintained.

Mr E Siwela (ANC) asked whether financial exclusions took place due to academic performance, or was it because the university was so expensive that students could not afford it?  Did the University admit more than the target number of students -- where did they expect to get the extra funding for that?  What happened when students were admitted and yet not funded?  What intervention took place?

Prof B Bozzoli (DA) asked how many students were at the university, and how many paid and did not pay?  Were the students applying at the National Research Council for postgraduate bursaries?  What was the level of indebtedness of students at the university?

Ms M Nkadimeng (ANC) referred to student protests over accommodation, and asked what progress had been made with a company appointed in 2011 -- how far was that project?  What plans had been put in place to ensure that strikes did not take place?  What was the communication protocol?

Ms S Mchunu (ANC) asked about the allocation of grants to universities and commented that this issue was at the centre of the challenge. There needed to be a review.  The National Development Plan called for an increase in PhD graduates.  There were more foreigners pursuing PhD degrees at Fort Hare than South African citizens.

Mr M Mbatha (EFF) said that the demands of the students were genuine, but there was no justification for physical action and property getting damaged.  Students should perhaps demand Wi-Fi, to access online content and materials.

The Chairperson asked how NSFAS was mitigating the complaints they had received from various institutions, and how they would improve the situation.  Did the University withhold the certificates of students who complete their qualifications, but could not pay their fees?  Had the University been unable to receive money from the Zimbabwean government, as reported in the news?

Dr Tom, in response to Members’ questions, said the breakdown of students’ costs was R50 000 for tuition, R20 000 for residence, and the rest would be an allowance for books.  There was a students’ centre where they could buy food, but there were also students who lived in self-catering facilities.  In terms of admissions, those students who performed well had their fees waived.  There were also a few bursaries that were given to students from alumni and the private sector.

The recent protest in July at the Alice Campus had not been driven by the SRC, buy by a group of students called the Task Team, which was beyond the scope of the normal leadership structure for deliberation.  These protests had also taken place around the time of SRC elections, with the culture of student leaders wanting to fight management.  Such student politics fuelled academic disruption in South Africa. Management and the SRC held quarterly meetings, and the Vice-Chancellor himself chaired those meetings.

The University provided 2 000 students with laptops. This was an ongoing project that needed further support in order to benefit more students.  On the question of enrolment, the University had seen a trend of students who leave the University due to various constraints, in order to work and earn money, and then return to the University. The Zimbabwean government had paid all their debts and had paid for the students enrolled under their bursary schemes. The University did use National Research Foundation (NRF) to fund postgraduates.  A private person had bequeathed R40 million for postgraduate students.  It would be used efficiently for the best benefit of students for many years to come. The financial aid office needed to be capacitated.

The Chairperson outlined a way for the Committee to assist in resolving the issue of student protests, facilitating investigation at other campuses and mobilizing other stakeholders to get involved.  The highlights of this proposal were:

· The Portfolio Committee should meet with the DHE and National Treasury to discuss the budget shortfalls in relation to the university subsidies and NSFAS allocations.  A recommendation would be made to exempt the historically disadvantaged universities from paying matching funds for infrastructure development -- in particular, for student accommodation.

· There was a misalignment of the financial and academic years which resulted in a delay in the transfer of funding to universities. NSFAS also received funding in tranches and could not pay the universities as expected.  It was proposed there should be a realignment of the financial and academic years, to enable students to receive meal, book and accommodation allowances.  The issue of the misalignment of the  fiscal year and academic year had been discussed with the Treasury but at the moment there was no resolution. The proposal was to have a meeting with the National Treasury and the Appropriation Committees to discuss the misalignment.

· Research development grant: The DHE should reward performance through increased funding.

· A national audit should be conducted to find out how many students were affected and the total amount of historic debt.  NSFAS should address the challenge of students’ historic debt, and find innovative ways of funding it.

· There was a wide spread of students across the country  -- the Tshwane University of Technology, the Vaal University of Technology and the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal -- and the sector had to find a way of addressing the challenge. The DHE should establish a task team to review the implementation of the recommendations of the Ministerial Committee Review reports, and investigate the students’ protests and make recommendations;

· The Committee must follow up on the urgent implementation of the National Digital Library.

· The Committee must follow up on the discussion around the imposition of 14% VAT on electronic journals.

· An engagement with the DHE and Higher Education South Africa (HESA) was needed, to discuss the demand for access to higher education, and resources to cater for the increased numbers of students and research.

· Additional funding should be made to NSFAS to assist universities that attracted students mainly from disadvantaged educational and family backgrounds.

· Open communication channels were needed between the management and the student leadership;

· The university management should provide timeous responses to student grievances to prevent student protests from recurring.

· NSFAS should fast-track its mechanism to source additional funding, to address the challenge of inadequate funding.

The Chairperson thanked the delegation for their presence and engagement.

The meeting was adjourned.

 

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