By Bongani Tshabalala
BLOEMFONTEIN-The registration process for returning undergraduate students and first-years has been extended at the University of the Free State.
Vice-chancellor Professor Francis Petersen said that the university recognises the financial difficulties that have affected students, specifically due to Covid-19 and unemployment.
However, Petersen explained that the concession to allow students to register would only apply to those who have debt of less than R25 000.
The university will arrange for payment plans to be developed as the academic year progresses.
“The historical debt has increased to R300-million, and [the university] cannot continuously provide concessions. These debts will only increase, and the university will be unable to write the debt off completely because of the risk and liabilities for which the university is responsible.”
For the past two weeks, students at universities nationwide have been protesting to be allowed to register even if they have historical debt.
Last week during a stand-off between the police and students from the University of Witwatersrand, Mthokozisi Ntumba was killed by police. The South African Union of Students (SAUS) released a statement condemning the brutality and violence during protests in Braamfontein, where live ammunition was used against unarmed students.
A list of demands was issued by the SAUS, which includes funding and free registration for students for the 2021 year. The union has called for a national shutdown of all higher education institutions from Monday.
Following the call for national shutdown, Universities South Africa, a forum of the 26 universities, met on Monday to discuss funding issues.
Responding to the national shutdown and the university’s involvement, Petersen said the safety and the well-being of all staff and students is a priority.
Petersen indicated that the university supports students who protest while ensuring the stability of its campuses.
He said there were currently protests underway at the Bloemfontein campus while the others remained undisrupted.
“There were blockages of students by the main gate, but students who were registered for face-to-face classes, and staff, were redirected to alternative entrances. We allow protests, but they tried to disrupt our face-to-face classes. Still, the protests are ongoing, but private security is on campus to control and monitor these protests to ensure it does not get out of hand.”
Petersen indicated that employing private security allows the university more control than the South African Police Force’s involvement. The private security contractors are unarmed and will regulate and control the environment according to the university’s instructions.
He also called for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme to be more financially sustainable for students.
“Education is not an investment where a return must be ensured, but an expenditure, and that is how the national treasury must engage with the budget on higher education.”
The vice-chancellor added that politicians must not exploit higher education to ‘further political score’ instead, this must be dealt with as a collective issue, and resources must be pooled to develop a sustainable financial model for students.