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UCT at odds with SRC over claim it breached financial exclusion mediation agreement

UCT at odds with SRC over claim it breached financial exclusion mediation agreement
UCT students gather on Graca lawns on campus to discuss and picket for accommodation in February 2023. (Photo: Xabiso Mkhabela)

Protests at the University of Cape Town resumed this week after some received emails indicating their financial exclusion while others were notified they would have to cover the shortfall in NSFAS accommodation allowances.

UCT students set bins alight and toppled tables on campus on Monday, 17 April to protest against financial exclusion and accommodation issues with the university. Several lectures were disrupted at the Kramer Law Building. 

Though it is unclear whether UCT’s student representative council (SRC) was part of organising the evening protest, the SRC released statements expressing their rejection of the university management’s recent decisions regarding their financial exclusion policy. 

In a statement, the SRC demanded the suspension of academic activity until the plight of students is adequately resolved: “We demand that the executive halt all academic activity until they have dealt with all matters that seek to exclude students who are most vulnerable. Academics cannot continue while students are being prevented from accessing their academics and futures. 

“We also urge all students to show solidarity by not participating in academic activities until the university does right by us. Student protests are a form of political expression and a right students have.”

In response to Monday’s protest, the university said it had “increased Campus Protection Services’ presence, and through the intervention of the SAPS as per the interim interdict granted by the Western Cape High Court in February 2023”.

UCT student protests

UCT students protest at the Bremner Building on Middle Campus on 10 March 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Financial exclusion and fee blocks

The SRC claims the UCT executive sent emails of financial exclusion to students on 14 April which “breaches” agreements made during mediation processes after the initial protest period at the start of the 2023 academic year. These protests were sparked as students demanded the university lift fee blocks, review their financial exclusion policy and engage with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) over its controversial decision to cap their accommodation allowances at R45,000 per annum.

Protests died down after the university was granted an interdict by the Western Cape High Court and management entered mediation processes with the SRC. 

UCT has denied any breach of the mediation agreement on fee blocks, and described Monday’s protest as ‘unlawful’.

In a statement, UCT said “the university executive management team shall, in a consultative manner using a participatory and inclusive methodology, conduct a review in respect of its fee policy, with specific reference to the application of a ‘fee block’ on the grounds of the financial means of the university and the needs of each student, the socioeconomic conditions affecting each student, the academic performance of each student, and so forth.”

The university conducted financial assessments of each student with a fee block in order to present these assessments to the UCT Council and propose the lifting of these blocks for eligible students. 

The university also noted that “management and the SRC jointly tabled a report” in which it was agreed that “all students in this grouping of academically eligible students will be presented to Council with a recommendation. The format of the presentation will be by category, not on an individualised basis, and will be presented as a joint recommendation by the executive and the SRC.”

UCT student protests

Protesting UCT students on Graca lawns, from where they marched to the Bremner Building on 10 March 2023. (Photo: Xabiso Mkhabela)

The university concluded by saying: “UCT management has taken the necessary steps to implement the outcomes of the mediated agreement” and stated its commitment to engaging meaningfully with the SRC.

The SRC claimed in a statement released Sunday 16 April that “each one of these clauses and many more were breached by management. They had presented their own recommendation to Council without the SRC. They had dragged their feet when giving access to educational resources to affected students and had separated students who find themselves in these categories, thereby victimising numerous students.”

NSFAS accommodation caps 

Another major issue facing students is the NSFAS accommodation caps. These have caused housing issues at many campuses across the country and UCT students have been outspoken about the way it is affecting their lives. 

“Students were unhoused and sleeping in lecture theatres, bathrooms and benches,” the SRC stated. 

Another breach of agreement that the SRC claims was the university sending their NSFAS-funded students an email saying they were expected to pay any outstanding amounts for their accommodation. 

The SRC said that “financial aid students received an exclusionary email last week stating that they need to find other means to cover their fees should the accommodation cap result in outstanding fees. This is after the university had committed themselves to covering the shortfall caused and used that as an excuse to Council not to lift fee blocks.”

UCT student protests

UCT students gather on Lower Campus to protest over accommodation. (Photo: Xabiso Mkhabela)

UCT student protests

Protesting students on UCT’s Graca lawns. (Photo: Xabiso Mkhabela)

The SRC called this decision “outrageous” and an insult to the legacy of the #FeesMustFall movement. NSFAS has stood by its decision to cap the accommodation allowances and pointed to price gouging and collusion as the reason for high costs of living for students.

NSFAS explained to Daily Maverick that no student should be having to cover outstanding accommodation expenses: “There should not be a shortfall as NSFAS has emphasised that students must be placed in  student accommodation that is within the R45,000 cap.” 

The organisation said it is engaging with accommodation providers to ensure their students are housed: “NSFAS embarked on hosting workshops with accommodation providers in all nine provinces. The aim of these workshops was to clarify the accommodation cap and encourage accommodation providers to register their properties on the NSFAS accommodation portal to accredit the properties and subsequently place students.”

On this issue, UCT said: “UCT management will continue engaging with the SRC on this and other related matters. As such, we wish to not engage through the media at this stage. 

“The university will provide any further updates as and when may be necessary at a later stage. Management reiterates in no uncertain terms that, contrary to claims made, there has been no breach of the mediation agreement on fee blocks reached with the SRC in March 2023.” DM

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