Students warn of campus shutdown

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On the eve of a planned shutdown of university campuses across the country, Rhodes University has urged the Department of Higher Education to find a sustainable way to fund deserving students. The Rhodes SRC on Friday 12 March put a halt to its O-Week programme and gave the University until 10am on Monday 15 March to respond to a list of demands regarding registration fees, student aid allowances, laptops and data.

Late on Sunday 14 March, the SRC posted on its page a call by the Rhodes University SRC, EFFSC and SASCO for the student body to convene outside the Drostdy Arch at 6am on Monday 15 March for a briefing.

The Student Representative Council earlier on Friday said it supports the national shutdown planned for Monday 15 March. “We stand in solidarity with the movement of shutting down institutions and empathise with the plight of all students,” said Secretary-General Michelle Makokove.

During the past two weeks, several students were arrested during protests by University of the Witwatersrand students.  Outrage flared as bystander Mthokozisi Ntumba died in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, on Wednesday, allegedly shot by police firing rubber bullets. According to Times Live, students across the country are broadly in support of the #asinamali (we have no money) protests, although specific responses from the various campuses differ.

Rhodes sounded the alarm ahead of the long-awaited return of students and the start of the already delayed academic year.

In a statement on 4 March, the University said while it was set for the start of the academic year, with orientation and registration set to begin the next day, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) had still not finalised funding approvals for first time entering students (FTENs) and returning students.

“The implications of this lack of confirmation are two-fold,” the University said. “First time entering students are not able to register, and while returning students have registered, they will not have access to allowances. This situation is deeply concerning as the University had put all plans in place for a successful start of the 2021 academic year.”

The University issued a new statement on Friday 12 March, following a meeting with the Student Representative Council, saying that:

  • The registration deadline has been moved to 26 March
  • Given the position of NSFAS about not funding the LLB ‘two-plus three’ year degree structure, the University has put in place creative ways to enable academically deserving LLB students to register.
  • The academic year will now commence on Monday, 15 March on a slow start while the registration process remains open.
  • the University will start paying allowances to all NSFAS qualifying returning Oppidan students on Monday, 15 March. The interim payments will be calculated on last year’s rates.

“It is disconcerting that every single year universities have to contend with this challenge of funding for academically deserving students from poor and working-class backgrounds,” the University said. “It is imperative that DHET and other role-players find a long term, affordable and financially sustainable mechanism of funding deserving students. The instability that marks the beginning of each academic year has a hugely harmful effect on Higher Education in our country.”

Rhodes SRC supports national shutdown

In a statement to students, SRC Secretary-General Michelle Makokove said the University hadn’t been transparent with the student body about measures taken to mitigate the NSFAS funding challenges.

“The academic year resumes in 2 days and their stance of “business as usual” is a complete disregard of the impediments that prevent students from engaging in their academic activities,” the SRC said.

A letter submitted to the Vice Chancellor’s office on Friday the SRC demanded that the 2021 academic year should be delayed until all their demands are met. These include that:

  • The late registration fee should be waived.
  • Returners should receive their learning material and living allowances by 15 March.
  • The days of stay in emergency accommodation should be extended and first-time entering new students in emergency accommodation should be allowed to live there for 72 hours after the NSFAS guidelines have been released.
  • Data for learning must be provided for international students outside of South Africa.
  • The  The Appeals Committee should provide students with their outcome form and reasoning as to why the appeal was unsuccessful.

The SRC said should the University fail to meet these demands by Monday 15 March at 10am, the SRC would participate in the national shutdown.

It would be communicated to the student body “how the disturbances will be carried out at the admin building and also virtually to accommodate students who have no permit to access campus”.

EFF Student Command stages sit-in

Meanwhile, an EFF Student Command campaign on Friday 12 March saw a group of students staging a sit-in at the Rhodes University Administration building under the Sizofunda Ngenkani (we will study by force) campaign.

“We are here at the VC office fighters demanding that the VC respond to our demands on the letter we hand delivered to him. We will #OccupyAdmin till our demands are addressed by the VC,” A post on the EFFSC Uckar’s Facebook page read. Uckar stands for University currently known as Rhodes.

The sit-in was later suspended. “We have decided to suspend the #OccupyAdminBuilding because of the Curfew. We fear the reaction that we may be subjected to from the police if we break the curfew rules. We still maintain that this is a peaceful protest and we therefore commit ourselves to following the curfew rules in the process.”

In an indication that they will support the national shutdown on Monday 15 March, the EFFSC Uckar posted: “We stand in solidarity with the fighters at Wits and all students who are at risk of losing funding, those with historical debt and those who cannot afford the exclusionary initial fee payment in demanding that NSFAS must fund all first-year students and that no student must be prevented from registration… we will have no plan but to support a national shutdown of all institutions of higher learning until every student registers.”

Funding to be reprioritised

After the protests at Wits and other campuses during the past week, Cabinet met to discuss the NSFAS funding shortfall. On 11 March Minister of Higher Education, Science and innovation Dr Blade Nzimande announced that funding from the DHET Budget would be reprioritised “to ensure that all deserving NSFAS-qualifying students are able to receive funding support for the 2021 academic year”.

Nzimande said further reprioritisation could only take place as part of the Medium Term Budget process later this year. Cabinet instructed a comprehensive review of the government’s student funding policy to support students in financial need, including those from poor and working class backgrounds as well as the so-called missing middle.

Outstanding debt has prevented some non-NSFAS-funded returning students from being allowed to register. Nzimande said they would be allowed to register provided they sign acknowledgement of debt agreements.

Nzimande said NSFAS would now be able to release funds for new students qualifying for NSFAS bursary support.

NSFAS bursary guidelines had yet to be finalised, but students already funded on NSFAS bursaries would be able to continue as long as they meet the academic criteria. However, there would be no funding available for new entrants on second or postgraduate qualifications. The latter was the responsibility of the National Research Foundation, Nzimande said.

“The only exception is that students who have completed Higher Certificates and gain access to a degree or diploma programme are able to receive funding, if they meet the academic and financial criteria.”

Nzimande met over the weekend with the South African Union of Students (SAUS), which represents all public university SRCs, regarding student demands.

Universities, including Rhodes, have agreed to extend registration dates

WHAT NSFAS SAID

In a statement on Friday 12 March, National Student Financial Aid Scheme Chief Corporate Services Officer Sibongile Mncwabe welcomed the decision by the government to address the funding shortfall to support first time entering students in public universities.

Funding eligibility decisions for new students had been released on 12 March, Mncwabe said, and students should check the NSFAS portal to track their funding status. (nsfas.org.za – myNSFAS).

“This now means that students will know their funding statuses and can proceed with registration processes at their chosen institutions to the extent that they have been accepted by those institutions.”

Unsuccessful first-time applicants should appeal through the portal. “his process remains open,” Mncwabe said.

For continuing students, however, this process was managed through institutions.

NSFAS IN NUMBERS

All NSFAS-qualifying university students on the DHET grant scheme (i.e. those students who were registered prior to 2018) will be subject to the funding cap of R98 700.

Allowances for students on the DHET bursary scheme for 2021 are as follows:

  • Learning material: R5 200 for students to buy electronic devices to support their studies. (Some campuses including Rhodes use different processes for providing laptops to students).
  • Living allowance for full-time students in contact study: R15 000
  • Incidental allowance: R2900 (for students receiving the R15000, the incidental allowance is included). This is provided to students who live in catering accommodation where their meal costs are covered through the bursary.
  • Travel (for students who live at home or in accommodation that is not accredited and therefore do not receive an accommodation allowance): R7500
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