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South Africa: violent protests, campus closures drive foreign students away

Tuition fee protests that have escalated into violent clashes at campuses across South Africa could discourage foreign students from enrolling in the country’s universities, a government official has admitted. Reports from student source countries show students have already begun to look to alternative study destinations, while some universities have suspended teaching in response to the protests.

Students protest fee hikes on the campus of UCT in October 2015. Demonstrations have continued throughout 2016 surmounting in campus closures and clashes with authorities. Photo: Flickr/Tony Carr

“Violent protests and campus closures could drive the top end of students from the rest of the continent to increasingly look at other markets”

Students are protesting the decision by the Department of Higher Education and Training to allow universities to increase their fees by up to 8% while offering subsidies for lower income students.

Speaking with The PIE News, a spokesperson for the DHET said that although the increase in tuition fees due to take effect in 2017 should not be a financial barrier, the “repeated, violent protests” it has triggered could drive other African students to study elsewhere.

“They want options out of South Africa. It definitely is no longer an option for Zimbabwean students”

“Since most foreign students studying in South Africa work with foreign currency, the fees are relatively cheap even at the most expensive universities and will still offer great value for money,” according to Busiswa Nongono, spokesman for DHET.

However, he acknowledged: “What is more likely to impact on foreign student enrolments are the repeated violent protests and campus closures, which could drive the top end of students from the rest of the continent to increasingly look at other markets such as the UK, USA and Australia, as many Zimbabweans are once again starting to do.”

The trend is already being seen on the ground in Zimbabwe, reported Liza Manoussis, founder of Global Education, which sends students from Zimbabwe and South Africa overseas to study.

“Enquiries from our Zimbabwe office have escalated dramatically, even students who are in the first year in South African universities have their parents call us to try and place them into universities overseas,” Manoussis told The PIE News.

“They want options out of South Africa. It definitely is no longer an option for Zimbabwean students.”

As the violent protests continue, five universities have already seen clashes with the police that have threatened to turn into anarchy, with destruction of property and injuries reported among protestors.

A number of highly rated universities have temporarily closed, including the University of the Witwatersrand, The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Free State University and Tshwane University of Technology, after the chaos that dominated most of September.

The University of Cape Town has suspended teaching for two weeks and its vice chancellor, Max Price, warned this week that the university could close until 2017 if clashes continue.

“The violence continues and we will wait to see what Monday brings”

“UCT sent a statement to all its students this week to say if students don’t resume their studies and the university does not go back to normal on Monday it will cancel this year’s studies completely and students will have to repeat the year,” reported Manoussis at Global Education.

“The violence continues and we will wait to see what Monday brings.”

Jen Whittingham, an international master’s student from the UK, studying at UCT, said the fee hikes will affect more than just students. Speaking with The PIE News, she said:  “I appreciate the fact that they have listened to protestors to an extent and have shutdown the university in order to allow space and time for transformative engagements between students and faculty to take place.

“However, the outcome of these efforts is unclear at the moment but will emerge on Monday. The repercussions of a further shutdown is very grave for all students and the country as a whole,” she added.

“I also believe that in parallel, the repercussions for black students who may see fee increases in the future are just as grave.”

Other higher education leaders are reading the protest as a class revolt, rather than simply fees-hike protests, pointing out that the unrest reflects social and economic discontent among the country’s youth.

“The current situation on all our campuses is of great concern and as you might have seen it is affecting all universities. It is now much more than a just university focused student uprising, but a social uprising against the current social order by a group of young people,” an international educator at NMMU told The PIE News.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande and the ruling African National Congress have condemned the riots, with the minister blaming the unrest on “rogue” elements.

“It is most disturbing to see such violent protests inflamed by rogue elements, even after wide consultation was undertaken on the measures announced to address the ongoing issue of university fees,” the minister said in a statement.

The South African government he said is committed to finding resources under its National Student Financial Aid Scheme to subsidise fees for children from “poor, working and middle class families”, as well as those with a household income of no more than 600,000 rand per annum to cushion them against the anticipated rise.

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