Last minute negotiations to avert registration chaos at SA universities
Zuma's fee-free vow has state scrambling and varsities braced for EFF-led chaos
Education authorities will meet with universities and the EFF's student wing tomorrow in an effort to put the brakes on possible clashes this week when masses of aspiring students are set to descend on campuses across the country.
Universities are on a knife-edge as thousands of people - some of whom matriculated years ago but never applied to study due to financial constraints - prepare to try to register.
This follows an announcement by President Jacob Zuma last month that free higher education will from this year be available to those living in households that earn less than R350,000 a year.While hailed in principle, the announcement has caused widespread concern over how the plan will be financed. Sources said this week that the National Treasury was looking at various options including freezing public service salaries, cutting back on planned capital expenditure and increasing VAT and income tax.
The EFF Student Command has threatened to shut down South Africa's 26 universities and 50 technical and vocational colleges if they refuse to allow walk-in applications.
"There could be someone who has been willing to study for the past 13 years and there was no opportunity because they did not have money. We are even calling those who dropped out because of financial reasons to come back and finish what they started," said EFF Student Command president Phuti Keetse.
Despite the threat, most universities have dug in their heels and vowed not to entertain walk-in applications. These have been discouraged since the death of Gloria Sekwena, the mother of a prospective student, during a stampede at the University of Johannesburg in 2012.
R12-BILLION TO PHASE IT IN
Minister of Higher Education Hlengiwe Mkhize is scheduled to meet vice-chancellors as well as Universities South Africa, the body representing them, tomorrow. Her deputy, Buti Manamela, will meet the EFF Student Command.
A senior government source close to the Treasury said the options being considered included scrutinising the spending plans of every government department.
"Treasury has been able to bring down the figure for the coming financial year from R40-billion to around R12-billion by changing the scenario, adding criteria and phasing it in incrementally," said the source.
Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba's spokesman, Mayihlome Tshwete, told the Sunday Times yesterday that the Treasury supported the principle of free higher education and was "applying its mind to the most sustainable approach to achieve this progressive objective".Details will be announced in the minister's budget speech.
Mkhize was reluctant to say whether the EFF Student Command's campaign on walk-in applications would be on the agenda at tomorrow's meeting, but Universities South Africa CEO Ahmed Bawa said: "Clearly, we will also be discussing what challenges there might be in terms of students pitching up on campus."
Mkhize said the meeting was to assess the "readiness" of universities and TVET colleges to implement the phasing-in of the government's free education policy.
A survey by the Sunday Times found that 17 of the 26 universities received more than 817,000 applications for 107,998 first-year places.
Mkhize said there were 208,000 places available at universities, 198,940 at TVET colleges and 72,348 learning programmes offered by the various sector education and training authorities.
A total of 153,610 pupils achieved a bachelor pass in last year's matric exams, making them eligible to study at university.
"Students who have firm offers and did not apply for NSFAS [National Student Financial Aid Scheme] funding but now believe that they will be eligible will need to report to the financial aid offices at their institutions for assistance," the minister said.
She was adamant her department would not ask universities to increase the number of places to accommodate students who had not applied to study.
"Spaces at each institution are determined by its approved enrolment plan and this is determined in line with available funding in the system. The additional funding announced [by Zuma] will not support increased numbers outside of the current approved enrolment plans."Commenting on the EFF Student Command's call, Manamela said: "This is almost a reflection of the projection of Y2K, the end is nigh, there will be chaos. As far as we are concerned, we have been working with universities and TVET colleges as early as July last year in anticipation of the reopening of institutions of higher learning this year. We therefore think there will not be any chaos."
He encouraged students who had not applied for a place to apply through the department's Central Applications Clearing House system - an online application portal for Grade 12 pupils seeking admission.
"You are not going to be assisted by walking in to universities."
Keetse said the meeting with Manamela would be "a good platform" to table their demands.
He said that universities could hold night classes to accommodate those who could not be taught during the day because of space constraints.
"We also have so many abandoned TVET colleges. What stops you from making that a satellite campus?"
'NO ONE ENTERS CAMPUS'
"We are not fighting anyone. All we want is for our people to be inside the system. If walk-ins are prohibited, it means no one enters campus. That's our stance and that's the promise we have given universities."
University of the Witwatersrand registrar Carol Crosley said over-enrolment had a "significant impact on the integrity of the university's academic programme".
She added: "It stretches the university's human resources capacity, affecting the workloads of lecturers, teaching and administrative staff. It also impacts on infrastructure as the university only has a defined number of teaching venues."
Wits received 56,901 applications for first-year enrolment for 5,664 places.
Professor Sarah Howie, director of the Africa Centre for Scholarship at Stellenbosch University, said she hoped reason would prevail and that deserving students who were offered places would be able to register "with nobody holding them back".
She added: "In my view it would be more helpful if the EFF Student Command could assist students who don't have access to online services rather than to turn up at universities." - Additional reporting by Sabelo Skiti