Students shut down UCT

| Ashleigh Furlong
UCT students protest fee increases and outsourcing. Photo by Masixole Feni.

UCT students uniting under the banner of #feesmustfall and #UCTshutdown protested today against the 10.3% fee increase for 2016. The students demanded an emergency meeting with the university council and a meeting between all vice-chancellors in the country, the Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene and the Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande, to discuss university fees.

Classes and operations were suspended on UCT’s upper, middle and lower campuses after the protesters blockaded all entrances to the university. In a statement, UCT described this as “unlawful”.

The protest action was organised by UCT Rhodes Must Fall, Joint Shop Stewards Council, UCT Trans Collective, SASCO UCT, PASMA UCT, PatriarchyMustFall, UCT Left Students Forum, UCT Muslim Youth Movement and UCT Palestine Solidarity Forum.

This morning about 80 to 100 students marched up from Lower to Upper Campus, singing, dancing and stopping traffic as they called for decreased fees and an end to outsourcing. At 1pm over 100 protesting students and workers converged outside Bremner building, the administrative headquarters of the university and listed their demands to acting vice-chancellor Francis Petersen.

The students demanded:

  • UCT must allow all workers from outsourced companies be let off of work tomorrow at 1pm to attend a mass meeting on Jammie Plaza (UCT’s main outdoor meeting place) to discuss fees and outsourcing.

  • UCT must cancel all lectures tomorrow for the mass meeting.

  • Management must attend the mass meeting and observe the deliberations.

  • UCT must call an emergency council meeting to discuss the immediate suspension of the 10.3% increase.

  • A meeting must be arranged with cabinet ministers to discuss free education and insourcing.

  • A response to trade union NEHAWU’s concerns about outsourcing at UCT must be released today.

After the demands were made, Petersen began to answer the questions but was repeatedly interrupted by students who took the microphone away from him when they thought that he was not addressing their demands. Pam Dhlamini, a representative of UCT Queer Revolution and the #feesmustfall movement, said that management had not allowed representatives from the movement to have a meeting with management in the Bremner building, as they feared the students would occupy the building. Instead UCT management had offered to meet the students in the parking lot or a nearby building.

Today’s protest follows similar ones at Wits University that resulted in Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib suspending the fee hike and re-entering negotiations with students. Similar protests against fee increases are also being held today at Rhodes University and again at Wits University.

“We have taken it upon ourselves to actually shut down the university today because of the 10.3% increase. That is very problematic because most of the students from poor backgrounds can barely afford university [without the increase],” said Kealeboga Ramaru, a protester.

She said that many students were excluded every year due to the increased fees.

Paleo Mokoena, who also attended the protest said that financial aid was deceptive because a portion of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) loan that students received needed to be paid back.

He said that the fee increase may not affect financial aid students right away but when they begin to pay their loans back they would feel the brunt of the increases.

On the connection between the students demanding reduced fees and an end to outsourcing, Mokoena said, “Some of our parents are working at these institutions and are outsourced and are earning a lower than living wage. And then we have to come back here and pay with no money and we get financially excluded. It just continues the cycle of debt.”

Second year law student Nomahlubi Hadebe said that solutions need to be found for students who cannot afford the fees. “We all deserve the same chance. We have got people from all backgrounds and this place needs to cater for that,” she said.

Hadebe, who is on financial aid, said that student financial aid does not cover the full costs of university and that the SRC’s bailout fund, which helps to fund students who are in good academic standing but are unable to pay their outstanding debt, is insufficient. “The amount the UCT SRC raises [for the bailout fund] is plus minus R150,000. How many students is that going to cover? They [UCT] are not trying to help us,” she said.

UCT Rhodes Must Fall released a statement this morning acknowledging that UCT has put “a lot of money into funding” and that UCT’s Financial Aid system is “one of the best in the country”. However, the statement said it is “still far from enough”.

“Even poor families are required to pay at least a third of their “disposable income” for university education. Yet rich students are not asked to pay a third of their disposable incomes. Effectively we are implementing a regressive tax on education. In fact for rich UCT students the lower fees at UCT in comparison to their high schools come as a relief,” wrote UCT Rhodes Must Fall.

“There also students too rich to be on funding and too poor to be able to pay for themselves. A family with a total [annual] income of more than R570,000 (as from 2016) and currently of more than R550,000 has no funding available to it.”

The acting vice-chancellor wrote yesterday that the university is committed to ensuring that fees “are never an obstacle to poorer students”.

“We have achieved this through allocating about 12% (R125 million) of all the fees we raise to topping up the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) allocation.”

He wrote that UCT has largely solved this problem by cross-subsidising poorer students with the fees from wealthier students, which, together with other money raised, amounts to about R500 million.

“For the last few years, UCT’s block grant from government has increased by about 3% annually, while our average costs, largely due to inflation including salary increases, have increased by 7% to 8%. In other words half our income is increasing at 4 to 5 percentage points below UCT’s inflation. The only way we can balance the books without compromising both quality and access (which would happen if we reduced the allocation to financial aid) is by increasing the fees by the same amount above internal inflation, i.e. 4% to 5%,” wrote Petersen.

Students and workers plan to meet tomorrow at 1pm on the Jammie Plaza to discuss fees and outsourcing.

On Twitter there were claims that two protesting students were knocked down by a motorist, and that one of the students was admitted to hospital. However, GroundUp had not been able to confirm these reports by time of publication.

UPDATE: This afternoon UCT obtained an interdict in the Western Cape High Court preventing various student protest groups and protesters, including the first respondent Rhodes Must Fall, from — in the university’s words — “interfering with university operations.” Judge James Yekiso’s order is wide-ranging and prevents disruptions to, among other things, libraries, lectures, tutorials, tests, exams and graduation ceremonies. It also prevents the students from stopping members of UCT management from returning to work. The respondents may appear in court on 23 November to oppose the interdict.

See also:

FeesMustFall2-20151019-MasixoleFeni-20151019.jpgRocks strewn across the entrance to UCT prevented cars from accessing upper campus. Photo by Masixole Feni.

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