Four statements on the student fee crisis

Three more statements reached me during the day.
I thought of making all of them available in one post
(and to update the slogan...!)

From the Department of Social Action (DSA)
of the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops' Conference (SACBC)

The Department of Social Action (DSA) of the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) unequivocally believes that no academically worthy young South African should be denied the opportunity to study at higher education level because of their financial situation, or that of their family. This is critical both as a matter of justice to redress the consequences of apartheid, but also to build a globally competitive national skills base to enable economic and human development in South Africa. Indeed SACBC’s associate body the Rural Education Access Programme (REAP), by virtue of its partnerships with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and corporate South Africa, has granted bursaries and loans to hundreds of rural young people from low income families enabling them to enter universities all over South Africa. 

DSA recognises that South Africa’s current fiscal limitations make completely fee free education impossible for all financially needy students in the short to medium term. The national economy is in decline, the majority of adults are still not in a financial position to pay income tax, many universities are in serious financial difficulty and there are numerous equally valid and urgent demands on the public purse – from housing, to health to quality schooling. Whilst higher education is vitally important, the scale of its resourcing must be held in balance with competing national needs. We also recognise that tuition fee increases cannot be dissociated from cuts in government subsidies to institutions. 

As a matter of equity, DSA also believes that if the state offers a young person the chance of gaining a degree that will exponentially increase their earning potential, then at such point as the graduate is earning a substantial income, it is reasonable to expect that they make affordable repayments to the state so that those who follow them can also benefit. The current NSFAS scheme provides for student loans which are in large part converted to bursaries upon successful completion of courses, leaving students with partial debt upon graduation. DSA supports this approach provided there is sufficient funding for all financially disadvantaged students and that all reasonable student needs including adequate food and shelter are covered, and that payments are effected timeously. This is in accordance with principles of common good, particularly applicable in the fiscally constrained context South Africa finds itself in. We encourage NSFAS to urgently address shortcomings in its administration that have sometimes exacerbated the challenges already faced by needy students. 

We welcome the establishment of a Presidential task force to investigate financial means of giving effect to the desire to afford access to higher education for all academically and financially deserving young people. This should include partnership with the private sector, more optimal utilisation of current resources as well as additional taxation measures. We also strongly encourage NSFAS to significantly improve the current repayment performance on its loan book. These measures have the potential to inject substantially increased and sustainable funding into the pool, thereby increasing student access.

DSA also recognises that the pace of genuine transformation in our higher education institutions remains unacceptably slow and that there is an urgent need for a clear and time bound plan to:- 
revise curricula to make them more genuinely contextual and reflective of African knowledge production;
  • significantly increase the proportion of black and female professors; 
  • eliminate language barriers to genuine access for all students 
  • focus greater attention on teaching & learning  
  • adopt a zero tolerance approach to racism of any kind on campus. 
Vice Chancellors and University Councils must be held directly accountable for delivery of clear transformation outcomes. 

Whilst sympathising with the root causes of student anger, DSA condemns all acts of intimidation, violence and malicious damage to property. Even with the best will and efforts in the world, many of the solutions to legitimate student grievances will take time to be realised. In the meantime, DSA urges all parties to act with a spirit of restraint, mutual understanding and compromise, particularly as students prepare to write year end exams. We then call upon DHET and all other relevant stakeholders, including the corporate sector, to urgently work together to develop and drive a comprehensive and achievable plan of action with short, medium and long term deliverables. 

For further contact, please call Russell Davies, Director of REAP on 0767800469.  
By Fr Anthony Egan, S.J.

While the chaos that accompanies the student protests over fees hikes at a number of our major universities has caught the media’s attention, the underlying causes seem woefully under-examined.  In a nutshell, the problem comes down to money: most students can barely afford existing fees let alone fee increases, while universities cannot afford not to increase fees.

Academic fees for tertiary education are very high in South Africa for most students, particularly those who come from underprivileged backgrounds. The average estimated cost per year of study is way beyond the means of the poor, the working class and even sections of the middle class. Even though the NSFAS bursary scheme is in place, many complain that it is haphazardly administered, excludes students whose family incomes are slightly over the fund’s means test and is frequently insufficient.  Many potential students simply cannot afford tertiary education.

To deny this problem is a grave injustice to the many who have struggled through material poverty and the intellectual poverty of an iniquitous school system and yet prevailed sufficiently to get into higher education. Education is a way out of poverty into the possibility of self-improvement, a decent job, a better life – and perhaps a vision of a wider world. This is true whatever professional, academic or technical field one wants to enter. No talented young person should be condemned to the poverty trap due to lack of funds.

On the other hand universities are caught in a quandary. The two great tasks of tertiary institutions are to train the next generation of professionals who can build the knowledge-based economy and to produce research that can advance science, economy and culture. Both these activities are people-intensive, and require large amounts of money, with little hope of income generation for the institution. In addition, the one task gets in the way of the other: you cannot do cutting-edge research when you are teaching and supervising large numbers of students, many of whom (though undoubtedly intelligent,) lack basic literacy and numeracy owing to a dysfunctional school system.

Too much teaching and research collapses; not enough teaching and the next generation of skilled professionals disappear. Quite simply, tertiary education needs more – not less – lecturers, but this costs money.

To further complicate matters, the rapid growth in tertiary student populations has stretched the infrastructure of institutions to breaking point. Where there are inadequate facilities, poor libraries, and under-resourced laboratories, the quality of teaching and research is severely compromised. Adequate administration is also needed to keep things running, pay staff salaries, electricity and water bills, and – yes – collect fees. Outside donors can and do fund research and offer bursaries, but they never cover these expenses.

The current conflict between students and universities is misplaced. They need to form a united front to call government to do its job: getting more funds to where they are needed: student bursaries (possibly linked to year-for-year work placements in the state sectors) and adequate subsidies to institutions based on research and graduate output performance.  Or the state should simply tell the poor that they don’t matter – and face the consequences at election time.

Follow the Jesuit Institute on Twitter @ JesuitInstitute

The Jesuit Institute South Africa

The Jesuit Institute South Africa, seeing education as critical to the betterment of our society, supports the rights of students to peacefully protest against the high and rapidly rising cost of Tertiary Education which excludes the poor, working class and even sections of the middle class. The rights to gather peacefully and protest against what amounts to unjust financial exclusion from educational institutions are protected by section 17 and section 18 of the Constitution respectively.  Peaceful gathering and protest are not criminal offences, but guaranteed civil freedoms.

The NSFAS bursary scheme is completely inadequate. Those who are not “poor enough” to qualify can often neither find the fees themselves, nor do they meet criteria for student loans.  We are acutely aware that many students are under intolerable pressures, trying to study full-time and simultaneously to earn enough money both to cover their fees and living expenses.

To deny the problem of financial exclusions is a grave injustice to the many who have struggled through the material and intellectual poverty of an imprudent school system and yet prevailed sufficiently to get into higher education. Education is a way out of poverty into the possibility of self-improvement, a decent job, a better life – and perhaps a vision of a wider world. No talented young person should be condemned to the poverty trap due to lack of funds. Catholic Social Teaching emphasises the empowerment of the poor and education as a key means of doing so.

We are also aware that Universities are struggling to maintain their provision of quality education as numbers of students have increased dramatically. Quality education requires an adequate body of well-qualified staff to meet student numbers. In addition, due to the large size of some universities, the cost of administration can be prohibitively expensive, not to mention the cost of the necessary educational resources.

We support students whose protests have put the serious issue of access to tertiary education firmly on the national agenda, and are heartened to see that many students have rallied across racial lines. Their commitment to challenging injustice peacefully is cause for great hope for the future of our country.  We appeal to students to continue to exercise good leadership and conduct their protest peacefully and with dignity (as has largely been the case thus far) and not to engage in acts of vandalism or destruction of property which will harm their cause. We appeal to government to take cognisance of the gravity and urgency of the situation and to engage students in genuine dialogue in the process of seeking a way forward. Money that is being wasted through corruption should be going into education and other critical areas for development. Education must be a priority and one which needs to be invested in appropriately.  Finally,   we remind government and the police that we do not need another Marikana. We strongly condemn the use of unnecessary police force against students. As section 13 of the South African Police Service Act 68 of 1995 says, the members of the South African Police Service must exercise their duty with due regard to the Constitutional rights of all persons in South Africa. Crucially, this section also states that even when use of force is authorised in a particular situation, only the minimum use of force is permitted.

As Pope Francis said in discussing the right to education: “The full exercise of human dignity must be built up and allowed to unfold for each individual.” We call on all people of faith to pray that a peaceful and constructive way through the crisis may be found and that education may become more accessible to all.

National Church Leaders

The SACBC has just sent the statement of the "National church leaders" on the present crisis in South Africa. The Catholic Church was represented by Archbishop Jabulani Nxumalo OMI.

* * *

National church leaders gathering in Johannesburg from 21-22 October 2015 at Southern Sun Hotel OR Tambo International Airport, for the Annual National Church Leaders’ Consultation (NCLC), issued the following special statement on the student fee crisis. 

We the Church leaders of South Africa lament the student fee crisis engulfing the country. We declare this a national crisis. 

We lament that we have not discerned the signs of the times. We have failed our students and not heard their voices. 

We lament and strongly condemn the unnecessary use of violence and police brutality against our students and children. We call for the immediate release of all detained under these circumstances. 

We further lament the exclusion of the poor from our spaces of higher education because of unaffordability. We recognize that the majority of these students are black and this entrenches inequality in our nation and denies educational opportunity. Our sacred texts call us to identify with the poor and marginalised. The church and faith leaders therefore have an obligation to stand in solidarity with the students on campuses around the nation. 

Consequently church and faith leaders have resolved today to visit the WITS campus to symbolically express our solidarity. We are committing ourselves to creating courageous spaces where South Africans are able to listen to one another and to the voice of God. 

We call on university authorities and government to join us in listening to students and avoiding violent behaviour that shuts down dialogue. Only through deep dialogue, listening and courageous action will we be able to find lasting long-term solutions. 

We especially call on the government to provide adequate resources to redress the evils of the past and to allow the poor to access tertiary education. We further call on the minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr. Blade Nzimande, and the President of the Republic of South Africa to undertake immediate and appropriate measures to address the situation more than they have currently displayed. 

As Church and faith leaders we commit to engage and journey with all concerned with these issues and we will call on other church and faith leaders to do the same at campuses across the country. 

We also assure university executives of our prayers at this time of crisis. 

Click here to download statement with the list of participants

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