Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE vice-chancellors of SA’s 26 universities on Sunday issued a joint appeal for improved state subsidies from the government, and called on students to act responsibly during their expected protests this year.

In a joint statement issued by Universities SA, vice-chancellors called on all in society to consider the prioritisation of their sector, as debate continues around a new funding formula for the institutions expected from next year.

Following tumultuous student protests over tuition costs and other issues last year, it is widely expected that university registration processes, which begin this week, will be disrupted on some campuses as students demand the scrapping of registration fees.

There are contingency plans in place as institutions grapple with the annual influx of new and returning students.

"We recognise that mobilising more than R6.5bn for this purpose within a short period in an environment of fiscal restraint is exceptional," Universities SA said.

Speaking at the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) anniversary celebrations at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg on Saturday, President Jacob Zuma reiterated that billions of rand would be pumped into education after concessions on tuition costs last year, adding that the "the youth of 2015 have demonstrated that they can be agents of positive social change".

Mr Zuma said the government would provide the struggling National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) with R4.5bn in addition to reprioritising R2.6bn to ensure there would be no fee increases this year.

State Security Minister David Mahlobo said on the sidelines of the party’s celebrations that the #FeesMustFall movement had created "unprecedented unity" among students regardless of political affiliation. This should be welcomed, he said, but problems arose when individuals tried to "hijack genuine student concerns".

"If there are those elements that want to cause disruptions, the country would not hesitate to assert its authority. But citizens have a right to voice their concerns and if they proceed (with protests) in January, they should proceed, as long as they do so within the law."

Mr Mahlobo said there would be an assessment on any threats from the students, but the government did not foresee any challenges and democracy should be allowed to "flourish" but violence and intimidation would not be tolerated.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande is expected to address the media today regarding post-school opportunities for matriculants.

Khaye Nkwanyana, spokesman for the Department of Higher Education, said on Friday Mr Nzimande was expected at his briefing today to reflect on the student protests.

Mr Nzimande would announce plans for this year and reflect on the progress made by a task team established to probe tertiary tuition costs and other student concerns, he said.

Mr Zuma last month released the report of a task team established in the wake of the #FeesMustFall protests.

It recommended a process to develop a "new financing model" that could help students from lower middle-income homes access tertiary education through unsecured loans.

The so-called "missing middle" of those too rich to qualify for government aid but too poor to afford tuition was one of the triggers identified by the task team for further student protests this year.

Other potential triggers for protests included students with debts owed to universities who were seeking to register this year, and those seeking to enter courses of study that are already fully subscribed.

University of Witwatersrand spokeswoman Shirona Patel said on Friday that there had been no incidents during registration of first-year students last week. There was widespread expectation of further protests this year, although these might be national, and probably when most students had returned.

"Contingency plans will be in place … security will be a priority for 2016," said Ms Patel, who added that the university had established a good working relationship with its students representative council and would be engaging with outsourced workers.

The University of Johannesburg on Sunday appealed to all students to "continue to support the security staff" in ensuring that the campus remained free of disruptions this year.

"With the exception of NSFAS-qualifying students, all students will in 2016 again be required to pay registration and student fees," said its spokesman, Herman Esterhuizen.

"This is one of the important revenue streams that ensure the university can remain financially viable and able to do its job of empowering thousands of young people," Mr Esterhuizen added.

Students will be returning to the protest-hit Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Cape Town on Monday, and examinations deferred from last year will be written this week.

With Natasha Marrian