Angry students from the University of the Witwatersrand have vowed to continue protesting against the exclusion of indebted students and the commencement of classes when more than 8 000 students have not yet registered due to owing the institution money.
On Tuesday morning police dispersed protesting students using rubber bullets as they gathered on Empire Road. The students demanded that all academically deserving students must be allowed to register.
One of the student protesters was arrested.
Mzwandile Sibiya, a final-year student at Wits, said that he had not yet registered because he still owes the university R133,000.
“My parents have tried to pay my fees but my dad lost his job last year due to the pandemic because he works in travel and tourism and now Wits doesn’t want to help me. I don’t even know what the next step is for me.”
“When they said we should return to school my whole family and I had hope because I’m doing my final year and we thought things would be better but now. I can’t even tell my mom what is going on because she suffers from high blood pressure.”
The Wits student representative council (SRC) on Monday said they were calling on the university’s management not to exclude students who have outstanding fees.
This comes after the SRC met with the Wits management and submitted a list of demands asking that students who owe up to R150,000 must be allowed to register and sign an acknowledgment of debt, but the student leaders say Wits management refused.
According to the SRC, many students have not yet registered because of previous debts and some had been excluded due to that. However, the SRC disrupted on-campus registrations on 4 March after negotiations with Wits management deadlocked.
The SRC said that students were financially distressed and due to the pandemic, many of them had lost their bursaries since some companies had closed down, while some parents also lost their jobs and could not afford to pay outstanding fees from last year.
Wits SRC president Mpendulo Mfeka said that they had over 8000 students who were at financial risk and the university had no plan on how to save those students.
“There are first years of 2021 who have not yet registered. We have a financial crisis and we are fighting for more than 8000 students who have outstanding debts to be allowed to register,” said Mfeka.
However, Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said the Wits academic year had resumed online on Monday and the majority of students have already registered.
“Almost all students have registered. Over 35,500 out of 37,500 students have registered and started classes online today, the remaining 2000 are mostly postgraduate students who will register in July and October as per the postgraduate intakes,” said Patel.
Patel also said students had already received laptops, 30GB of data per month, a new learning management system (ulwazi/CANVAS) and online lectures had already started, with more than 750 students who requested assistance from the Wits Hardship Fund having been helped.
“We wish students all the best for the 2021 academic year, we have invested in a new learning management system and ensured that students have access to data and devices, so that learning and teaching can continue despite the hindrance of the coronavirus pandemic,” Patel concluded.
The SRC disputed this and said that no first-year student had received a laptop and even those that were already on campus had no idea how to use the computers or the ulwazi/CANVAS system and this put them at a disadvantage.
“No first-year student can come to me and say that they have received a laptop and even those who are on campus don’t know how to use computers or the ulwazi system where they need to submit their assignment.”
“In a normal year without the pandemic at Wits, students are taught how to use a computer and also taught how to navigate the ulwazi system but now just after they registered they are already doing their things online, Zeblon Vilakazi [Wits vice-chancellor] is intentionally setting our students up for failure,” said Mfeka.
Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande on Monday said the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) would continue funding all returning Nsfas beneficiaries who met the academic and other relevant criteria for continuing their studies. However, Nsfas is facing a shortfall on its funding for 2021, which means that it has been unable to confirm funding for new university students.