Protest over hikes in fees ends in campus violence

February 11, 2000

Ten students were hurt in recent protests against radical fee increases at the Medical University of South Africa (Medunsa).

A class boycott turned violent when police moved in and used tear gas to disperse hundreds of students who had blockaded the main entrance to the campus.

A week-long dispute between students and the university's management began in late January, with students revolting against above-inflation increases of 19 per cent in tuition and residence fees.

Chaos erupted on the second day, when students rampaged across the campus north of Pretoria and tried to close it down.

On February 1, the students suspended the class boycott and protests after agreeing with management to create a joint committee to tackle their financial grievances and pending the outcome of a report being compiled by the university's council.

But for South African universities - most of which start registering students for the new academic year in mid-February - the Medunsa protests raise the spectre of renewed trouble over fees and the affordability of higher education for disadvantaged students.

In late January, at a meeting with the national executive of the South African Students Congress, education minister Kader Asmal was warned that it was "unacceptable" for students to be excluded from institutions because they could not pay fees.

Professor Asmal replied that the state would continue to support wider access to higher education for poor students - it has spent R1.7 billion (Pounds 170 million) on bursaries and loans since the first democratic elections in 1994 - but that those who could not raise funds could not be accommodated.

He added that the government encouraged dialogue at institutional level to enable poor students to attend classes.

But he condemned the violence and said Sasco, which has been accused of instigating the Medunsa events, should oppose the practice of financially able students not paying fees. He urged the students to pay up and told those who could not afford the rise to make arrangements with their departments.

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