Protests over aid shortfall at Wits

May 21, 2004

Student protests reminiscent of the apartheid era disrupted Wi****ersrand University during the recent South Arican celebrations of ten years of democracy.

But the protests were directed at falling financial aid for disadvantaged students rather than at political oppression.

Loyiso Nongxa, the vice-chancellor, called in police and 12 students were arrested and bailed on public violence charges. They may also face disciplinary action by the university. Wits offered post-traumatic stress counselling to staff and students caught up in the protests after students agreed to suspend the demonstrations pending a joint search for extra funding.

Maximum state aid for poor students is R25,000 (£2,048) per student a year. Average costs at Wits are R35,000 a year.

Wits has spent R246 million in the past three years on aid, bursaries and scholarships. But the number of students qualifying for financial aid quadrupled to 3,000 last year, as student numbers grew from 18,000 to 25,000.

When Wits realised it did not have enough money to pay for all the aid, it sent out a letter informing applicants that they would receive only half the funds they were expecting, prompting the protests.

The government, companies, non-governmental organisations and banks are being approached to consider offering bursaries.

Philemon Lukhele, the student president, warned that if fundraising efforts failed, protests would resume.

The government has urged universities to increase numbers of poor students but has not increased financial support in line with demand.

The National Students Financial Aid Scheme grew from 7,240 grants worth R22 million in 1991 to 93,500 awards worth nearly R600 million ten years later.

But with nearly 700,000 students in higher education, even this year's R1 billion grant is not enough.

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