Why Student Protests Happen Every Year


The start of each academic year is often marked by student protests, and this year was no different. Questions have been raised about what the Department is doing to combat the issues that lead to these protests to prevent this from occurring in years to come.



Almost every year, without fail, universities and colleges are impacted by student-led protests. While these protests may become disruptive, often bringing academic activity to a standstill for more than a week, they are not birthed out of nowhere. 

The origins of frustration for thousands of the country's students can be traced to multiple sources; namely, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), tertiary institutions themselves, student accommodation shortages, Gender-Based Violence (GBV) on campuses amongst other safety and security issues, as well as tuition fee increases. 

The same problems that students have been raising for a few years now, continuously manifest and affect each batch of entering and continuing students. 

While the DHET and its Minister, Blade Nzimande, have acknowledged students' concerns, not much has been done to actually address the issues that persist.

The Minister says that it is not a case of ignoring student outcries, but that certain aspects of finding solutions take time. 

It should be noted that some of the issues raised at a national level require medium- and long-term planning. These are being addressed in some way or another, but many may take time to address especially those that have significant financial implications, such as student accommodation shortages, funding for postgraduates and missing middle students. 

While free higher education is a promise many students are hoping for, there have been a number of setbacks in seeing that idea become a reality, especially surrounding the group of missing middle students.

The missing middle continues to be excluded from pursuing higher education because of the eligibility requirements stipulated by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). 

What is the "missing middle"?

The "missing middle" is the term given to students who are considered to be "too rich" to receive funding from NSFAS, but are not rich enough to pay for their studies completely out of their own pockets.

These students may be thought of as "too rich" for NSFAS, but the reality is that higher education is extremely expensive and unaffordable for most.

While some may perceive NSFAS bursaries as free education at play, not everyone qualifies for funding, leaving many stranded and without the opportunity to study or complete current courses, particularly during a time when more of South Africa's students are entering higher education, with majority of them needing financial aid. 

The exclusion of the "missing middle" from accessing and affording higher education has been continuously criticized and discussed, with the "solution" always being that the Department and Minister of Higher Education, promising to develop and implement more "comprehensive student funding models".  

This new funding model was said to be finalised in January 2023. 

NSFAS also made the decision to stop funding postgraduate students in 2021, meaning many are unable to further their studies after they've completed their undergraduate qualifications. 

In a number fields, one qualification is simply not enough.

Delayed payments of NSFAS allowances

NSFAS is notoriously delayed when it comes to paying student allowances on time; these allowances make it possible for students to successfully register at universities (NSFAS covers the registration fee), find student accommodation, and buy study materials and groceries. 

Earlier this year, several institutions were under fire for allegedly financially and academically excluding students.

In some cases, students could complete their registration due to the late disbursement of Nsfas funding, nor could they settle tuition debt which prohibited them for continuing with their studies or from graduating. 

These challenges ultimately led to intense student protests, starting at the University of Cape Town and spreading to other tertiary institutions across the country.

Other issues included increases in tuition fees, as well as problems relating to NSFAS. 

Gender-Based Violence on university and college campuses 

Gender-Based Violence (GBV) remains a serious concern for many students at South Africa’s universities. Nzimande has acknowledged that this is a matter of great concern, announcing the launch of the “Transforming MENtality Programme”.

The programme will seek to address toxic masculinity in the Post School Education and Training (PSET) system, as one measure to solve some of this problem. 

In 2020, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) developed a framework for addressing GBV on campuses called the “Policy Framework to Address Gender-Based Violence in the Post-School Education and Training System.”

The policy provides guidelines and recommendations for universities to prevent and respond to GBV incidents.

Lack of decent and affordable student accommodation 

Additionally, there is a worrying lack of available student accommodation that is not only obtainable, but also of good condition. This has lead students to look at private accommodation facilities, but the issue of landlords asking for rent that exceeds the Nsfas allowances students receive for accommodation specifically. 

The unaffordability and unavailability of student accommodation has resulted in many students sleeping on the floor, with some essentially being homeless, creating an apparent student accommodation crisis.

Although a solution has been developed, in the form of a student accommodation portal, there is still much to be done. 

Students left without accommodation are more vulnerable to becoming victims of various crimes, including theft and GBV. 

The DHET and Minister Nzimande have been keeping a close eye on tertiary institution proceedings and encourage regular engagements between university management and Student Representative Councils (SRCs) to resolve the concerns of students.


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