South African universities will be allowed to increase their tuition fees by up to 8 per cent in 2017, but students from low- and middle-income families will not have to foot the bill.
The announcement triggered protests at campuses across the country, despite the government’s decision to provide support for the first time for students from the so-called “missing middle”, who have struggled to cope with significant increases in fees over the past decade.
Public funds will cover the cost of the rise for students from the poorest backgrounds, who are eligible for support from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, and those from households with an income of less than 600,000 rand (£32,900).
Last year’s proposed fee increases were cancelled by the government in the wake of widespread protests but Blade Nzimande, the country’s higher education minister, said that universities would be able to choose an increase of up to 8 per cent this year.
He argued that, while the additional student support would “bring huge relief” to parents on middle incomes, an across-the-board fee freeze was not feasible.
“It is very unclear to government why families who can afford private schools should, under the current circumstances, be receiving further state subsidies for their children at universities,” Mr Nzimande said.
“To subsidise these students would require taking funding from the poor to support cheaper higher education for the wealthy, which is not justifiable in a context of inequality in our country.”
The announcement, which is being treated as an interim solution until a presidential commission reports on the way forward for higher education funding in South Africa, was welcomed by Universities South Africa.
“All South Africans would agree that if a student is admitted to a university to study towards a qualification in higher education, there should not be any exclusion based on their financial condition,” said Ahmed Bawa, the representative body’s chief executive.
Professor Bawa added that he hoped the announcement would allow for the 2017 academic year to get under way without being “jeopardised”, but the protests with which it was met suggest that this may not be the case.
Demonstrations focused on the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where hundreds of students were involved in protests which disrupted classes. Police in the city fired stun grenades at protesters and said that they had made 31 arrests.
Lectures were suspended at the University of Cape Town, while University of Bloemfontein and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University said that they had closed their campuses because of demonstrations.