News that tuition fees at South African universities would be increased starting next year has sparked violent student protests on campuses across the nation, resulting in the closure of over two-thirds of the country’s 26 universities.

Last month, Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande announced that universities could raise their fees for 2017 by up to 8 percent.

Unhappy over the fees hike, students have organized countless demonstrations over the past few weeks, facing off with police officers armed with stun grenades and rubber bullets.

Many students have been left injured, and dozens more arrested.

The protests have disrupted classes and final exams, causing concern for students who wish to complete the academic year.

In a survey conducted last week at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (popularly referred to as “Wits”), the university asked students if they wanted academic activities to resume on this week “if there was appropriate security in place”.

The overwhelming majority of students (77 percent of 21,730 responses) said they wanted the academic programme to resume, while 23 percent voted against it, reported University World News.

At the University of Johannesburg, it has been business as usual despite the clashes, as students were determined to continue with classes, said university officials.

In 2015, students held demonstrations under the banner of “#FeesMustFall” after hearing of plans to increase fees, calling on the governing African National Congress (ANC) party to honour its 1994 pledge of “free education for all”.

The government capitulated to demands, and postponed the fees increase. However, universities are finding it difficult to stay afloat due to rising costs, which is why the ministry has pushed through the hike.

Though the current protests involve fewer students than last year’s, they have become far more violent, as university property such as resident halls and libraries have been vandalised and firebombed.

Demonstrations have even caused the death of Celumusa Ntuli, 39, a cleaner at Wits who died of complications after student protestors entered a student hall he was cleaning at the time and set off the fire extinguishers.

Ntuli fell ill as a result of the incident and passed away in the hospital several days afterward.

In a statement, Nzimande condemned the riots, blaming the conflict on “rogue” elements.

“It is most disturbing to see such violent protests inflamed by rogue elements, even after wide consultation was undertaken on the measures announced to address the ongoing issue of university fees,” he said.

University officials have struggled to keep the situation under control, while the ministry has promised to provide the resources to cover the fee increase for all students from poor, working- or middle-class families with household incomes of up to R600,000 (US$43,700) a year.

Speaking to Associated Press, Mzwanele Ntshwanti, a student leader at Wits, said that once student demand for free education is met, “we are willing to go back to class. I mean, we are here because we want to study and get degrees.”

“We’ve managed to disrupt the system because that’s the only language that they understand,” he said.

If the protests continue to disrupt academic activities, however, some universities have warned that they would close until next year.

The University of Cape Town’s Vice Chancellor, Max Price, has informed students that if classes do not resume by October 3, the university will cancel this year’s studies completely and students will have to repeat the year.

International students who were considering South Africa as a study destination have since been spooked by the ongoing instability, prompting them to look at other alternatives for furthering their studies.

A spokesperson for the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), Busiswa Nongono, told The PIE News that it was not the rise in tuition fees, but safety concerns due to the protests, that was deterring foreign students.

“Since most foreign students studying in South Africa work with foreign currency, the fees are relatively cheap even at the most expensive universities and will still offer great value for money,” he said.

“What is more likely to impact on foreign student enrolments are the repeated violent protests and campus closures, which could drive the top end of students from the rest of the continent to increasingly look at other markets such as the UK, U.S., and Australia, as many Zimbabweans are once again starting to do.”

Zimbabwe is one of South Africa’s biggest markets for international students, and student recruitment agencies are seeing an increase in inquiries from students and families looking for other options.

South Africa’s cabinet has called for calm, appealing to students to raise concerns appropriately and in line with the Constitution, while the authorities have sworn to “leave no stone unturned in finding those responsible for the criminal activities witnessed”.

“All stakeholders, especially parents and guardians, need to be actively involved in finding lasting solutions to the education funding challenge,” said the cabinet in a statement.

Image via Associated Press

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