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South African gov relaxes rules on student visa extensions amid campus closures

The Department of Home Affairs in South Africa has agreed to relax rules around visa extensions for thousands of final year international students potentially affected by widespread protests on university campuses across the country.

FeesMustFall protest at UCT, South AfricaThe second day of demonstrations at UCT in October 2015. Protests have since escalated into violent clashes that have led to campus closures. Photo: Wikicommons/Discott.

“Parents from place like Kenya and Uganda are calling me, concerned. They thought that South Africa was a safe place to study"

Universities have responded to demonstrations by closing or partially closing campuses, putting the year’s academic calendar behind by almost three weeks.

“International students are caught in the middle of this, especially study abroad students”

If protests persist, students could be asked to continue their studies into 2017 – well past the end date of their student visas, most which expire in December.

Nico Jooste, senior director of the Office for International Education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and International Education Association of South Africa president, said if the academic year goes into January, 5,000 to 8,000 students will be affected.

After a request sent by IEASA, the government has agreed to allow final year students to extend their visas by no more than six months.

The requirement to apply 60 days before the expiry of the visa has also been relaxed and the supporting documents required for the application will be reduced to just critical documents, which include a letter from the university.

The extension is dependent on universities’ decisions to extend their academic years past December 2016. If they decide to continue into 2017, IEASA said they must inform international student immediately so they can begin the visa renewal process.

“That will then place quite a burden on DHA for paper work and universities might not have the capacity to handle that many students getting letters of extension,” said Jooste.

He added that most universities have plans in place to catch up on the complete academic year before the end of 2016, but it is all dependent on the protests.

“International students are caught in the middle of this, especially study abroad students,” added Jooste.

NMMU and UCT together host the majority of the country’s study abroad students, around 1,500, mostly from the US and Europe. studying undergraduate degrees.

“It’s even more difficult for study abroad students because they have to think about changing their return home flights,” said Jooste. “Some universities are making arrangements to have students write exams back home but allowing them to finish the teaching period in South Africa.”

“Some universities are making arrangements to have students write exams back home”

Jooste’s own institution, NMMU, will open on Monday after a three-week closure “if everything goes to plan”, he said.

Meanwhile, the University of Capetown and University of Witwatersrand, each with about 2,500 final year students, are still trying to establish a normal routine amid demonstrations.

UCT announced it will be closed through October 14, but in a statement said planning with “multiple stakeholders… in order to find ways to conclude the academic year successfully is far advanced. An announcement in this regard is expected soon.”

The University of Witwatersrand, one of the more militarised campuses in the country, has been partially opened, allowing students to attend classes if they want.

On October 12, it announced the extension of its academic year by two weeks as a result of the protests.

“We are open to engaging with students from all societies and mediators to try to find a negotiated settlement,” said the university in a statement.

“The dean of students invited 20 student representatives to meet with management, but the protesting students did not take up the offer,” it continued. “We are also open to an imbizo [a meeting] provided that it doesn’t fall into teaching time, it is facilitated independently, it allows for two way conversation and is planned in advance.”

Jooste is also concerned for South Africa’s reputation as a safe study destination on the continent. “Parents from place like Kenya and Uganda are calling me, concerned. They thought that South Africa was a safe place to study so I hope it [the protests] doesn’t break that,” he said.

“I expect an uneasy end of the year and a break in December and January before February starts with new plans.”

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