South Africa Students Plan to Shut Universities Over Funding

A South African student movement plans to shut down the nation’s 26 public universities until the government meets demands including clearing debt and allowing free registration for the 2021 academic year.

The step follows a weekend meeting of the South African Union of Students after protests on campuses including the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg last week left one person dead. Students began demonstrations after being prevented from registering because they failed to secure state subsidies or were in arrears on their fees.

The student movement has called for debt of 13 billion rand ($874 million) to be cleared, the allocation of funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, to new students and for laptops to be provided as universities have moved their academic programs online.

By midday on Monday, the South African Union of Students had posted videos of protests at campuses around the country on its Twitter page.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni allocated 37.3 billion rand to NSFAS for 2021-22 in last month’s budget. That will only increase by 1.7% annually for the next three years, while inflation for post-school education is at 4.7%. Funding for higher-education institutions was cut by 8 billion rand for the next three years as the Treasury trimmed the spending allocation for some parts of the government in an attempt to narrow the fiscal deficit and slow debt growth without increasing taxes.

The Department of Higher Education and Training is unable to clear all the debt of fee-paying students, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said in a statement.

One of the legacies of apartheid, under which Black people were given inferior schooling by the state and prevented from entering certain professions, is unequal access to post-school training that persists along racial lines more than 25 years after the end of White-minority rule. Many young people see access to university as a way out of poverty in a country where 41.8% of those aged 15 to 34 were not employed or in education or training at the end 2020.

Students protested en masse in 2015 and 2016 to pressure the government into providing free tertiary education, sparking violent clashes with the police. Then-President Jacob Zuma bowed to their demands on the eve of relinquishing the presidency of the African National Congress in December 2017, promising to scrap tuition fees for students from poor South African homes and freeze tariffs for those from working-class households.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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