Wednesday, 24 March 2021 13:17

Staff Reporter.

The Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology has commended the University of Witwatersrand Student Representative Council (SRC) for raising R3.6 million towards assisting 3% of students who could not register due to outstanding fees.

"This is a patriotic act by the SRC to ensure that no student is left behind," said committee chairperson, Philly Mapulane.

The committee held a follow-up meeting with Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande; the Universities South Africa (USAf); University of the Witwatersrand Council; management and SRC; the South African Union of Students (SAUS) and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to discuss the current national shutdown of public higher education institutions.

During the meeting on Tuesday, the committee welcomed the commitment by the Wits University management to extend its registration period to allow students to register, and its commitment to raise funds during its centenary celebrations to address the question of the missing middle and students’ historic debt.

"We note and applaud the change in posture of the Wits University management to learn from the disagreements that led to the protracted student protests at the university, and to find a better way of resolving conflict and mediation.

"This is welcomed, as it will go a long way in ensuring that students’ grievances are speedily addressed and compromises are reached without resorting to protests that delay the commencement of the academic programme," Mapulane said.

Profiling current student debt

The committee also welcomed Nzimande’s announcement that government has started a process of profiling the current student debt, in order to understand who owies fees, how much is owed, which universities are owed how much, and how much of this debt is recoverable.

This, Mapulane said, will assist government to develop an appropriate policy intervention to deal with the question of student debt.

"Historic debt is an albatross on the neck of the universities, and the current student debt is estimated at R14 billion and it is growing. This should concern everyone, and society in general has to come to the party to ensure that the debt is resolved, given the current economic constraints," Mapulane said.

Funding for missing middle

The committee welcomed the Cabinet decision to request Nzimande to present a comprehensive proposal for the funding of the "missing middle", among other things, by June 2021.

The committee said the funding needs of students, who fall outside of the R350 000 threshold, must be addressed, particularly for those falling in the category of the lower middle class.

"We wish the task team success in advance and look forward to engaging with its work once it is concluded and presented to Cabinet," the chairperson said.

Funding for higher education

The committee further welcomed the additional funding to cater for the NSFAS shortfall, while noting with grave concern that National Treasury did not allocate new funding.

Funding for universities and Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) infrastructure, including the skills levies to support skills development interventions for unemployed youth, small, medium and macro enterprises and cooperatives by the National Skills Fund (NSF), has been reprioritised to fund university students.

"It is concerning that the much needed infrastructure and the skills needed to address youth unemployment will take a back seat, while funding is taken to address student funding at universities… This is not sustainable. Therefore, the country needs to prioritise funding higher education so as to secure the future of our nation," Mapulane said.

Police urged not to use excessive force during protests

The committee reiterated student leadership’s' clarion call for the police to desist from using excessive force, including the use of rubber bullets and live ammunition, during student protests.

"The committee will, at the earliest convenience, engage with the Portfolio Committee on Police on this matter.

"The committee also calls on the Minister and USAf to look into the issue of the security and militarisation at institutions of higher learning," Mapulane said.