Students chant slogans and sing during a mass  meeting under the banner #FeesMustFall at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on Monday. The UCT called off classes, lectures and tests as students protested against fees.  Picture: EPA
Students chant slogans and sing during a mass meeting under the banner #FeesMustFall at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on Monday. The UCT called off classes, lectures and tests as students protested against fees. Picture: EPA

HIGHER Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has sent the problem of fee increases back to universities, leaving chancellors to face the wrath of the students alone.

On Monday, the minister announced that the country’s universities would have to determine their own fee increases for 2017. But, he capped any such increases at 8%.

Nzimande also said fees for students who qualified for funding under the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, as well as the so-called missing middle, would not increase in 2017.

Soon after his announcement, tensions heightened at many universities across the country, with students threatening to shut down the institutions until their demand for an across-the-board moratorium on fee increases is met.

READ THIS: 'We reject this' — Wits students react to Nzimande's fees announcement

"Blade has run away from his responsibility and has created confusion in the country… This is lazy politics of the ANC and its alliance partners," said Mandla Mbuyisa, a spokesman of the Black First Land First student movement, which is part of the broader #FeesMustFall campaign. "A university is supposed to serve [the] interest of society… they cannot be autonomous when it comes to issues of fees … It is clear that Blade is running away from the commitment of free education," Mbuyisa said.

Students would shut down the entire country until their demand for zero-percent fee increases across the board was met, he said.

Equal Education spokeswoman Andile Cele said the organisation wanted the government to pay closer attention to the issue of free education for the poor.

"We reiterate the point that free education cannot be for everyone at the moment, but there should be free education for the poor now. We do not believe that the universities should carry the burden of providing free tertiary education, but [it] should be the responsibility of the state to do so," Cele said.

During a media briefing on Monday, Nzimande said the authority for determining fee adjustments resided with university councils.

The Council on Higher Education (CHE), an independent statutory body responsible for advising the government on all higher education policy issues, warned in a report submitted to Nzimande in August that implementing students’ demands for a zero-percent increase would leave most of SA’s universities in a worse financial position. It said this, together with underfunding, would threaten the sustainability of the higher education system.

Nzimande said after receiving the CHE report and consulting with various stakeholders in the higher education sector, his department’s recommendation was that fee adjustments should not go above 8%.

"To ensure that such inflation-linked fee adjustments on the 2015 fee baseline are affordable to financially needy students, government is committed to finding the resources to support children of all poor, working-and middle-class families — those with a household income of up to R600,000 a year — with subsidy funding to cover the gap between the 2015 fee and the adjusted 2017 fee at their institution. This will be done for fee increments up to 8%," he said.

Nzimande said while the presidential commission looking at the feasibility of free education continued with its work in developing proposals for a long-term funding model, universities would not be able to operate with less funds than they already had.

DA MP and education spokeswoman Belinda Bozzoli said that Nzimande’s announcement raised more questions than answers.

"While we welcome the announcement, as well as the acknowledgment by the minister that he respects university autonomy, he failed to give us a clear indication that the funding support he announced for poor, deserving students actually exists," she said.