The State of Student and Higher Education Politics in South African Universities in 2018

Written by Nkululeko Makhubu

10 May 2018

OSPHERA for this blog, will focus on South African universities and their respective student representative status. The 2015 and 2016 Fees Must Fall student movement was a high point in for active student participation in terms of its offline and online levels of protests of student interests. Student activists and public protest sympathisers across race, class and other social divisions stood up to the Department Higher Education and Training (DHET).

Admittingly, social media organisations (collective activism over campus and national hashtag campaigns) on platforms like Facebook and Twitter are too often anarchically structured to address common offline student grievances on each campus issues. Despite this, it is important for researchers to know the levels of authority for student representation considering the offline paradigms in SA higher education stakeholders.


Founded in 1924 and dissolved in 2 July 1991, The National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) was an important force for liberalism and later radicalism in South African student anti-apartheid politics. Its mottos included non-racialism and non-sexism during the time of the apartheid regime.

According to SA History Online, NUSAS since its inception was awarded over R47 000 in interest-free loans for the needy students and this was payable over a decade period. NUSAS was also active in to other social responsibilities such as educating prisoners about moral of the society, released prisoners, counseling children of prisoners, adult education of Blacks and feeding schemes for the poor of all races.

Notably in this period, “despite its liberal resistance to racially separate organisations in the 1960s, its members, and in particular its leadership, supported the breakaway in 1969, of black student leaders, led by Steve Biko and others, to form the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), a Black Consciousness Movement student grouping.” Sadly on 1977 October 19, after the death of their leader, SASO and other Black Conscious (BC) organisations are banned under the Internal Security Act.

Presently, Gauteng based South African Union of Students (SAUS) represent all Student Representative Councils across the 9 province country. On their January 2018 Facebook post, it says: “The South African Union of Students SAUS, on behalf of students in general and the disenfranchised, destitute, disadvantaged and suffering youth and families reiterates its stance on welcoming the pronouncement by the President, declaring free education for students coming from poor and working class families with a combined annual income of up to R350 000.

This has been a long held view and struggle of the Union from its inception and believes that it is a step in the right direction in broadening access to Higher Education, increasing the throughput rate and ultimately the transformation of higher education and training, hence our clarion call for access, success and redress.”

SAUS Transformation vision 2025

SAUS understands and considers seriously the context of South Africa’s economic climate which has been in decline for a number of years. During the second higher education in the peaks on the October Fees Must Fall protests, from the 15 till 17th proposed the following.

The SAUS envisions a transformed education sector to be a sector that would have advanced the underlying factors:

  • corruption-free universities;
  • free quality education for the disadvantaged;
  • Councils and senates that are diversified in accordance with the countries demographics;
  • fully transparent Councils that fully account to the public and ministry of higher education;
  • a shift from managerialism towards leadership by university leader-managers;
  • a professoriate that is 27% black;
  • more significant African curriculum and knowledge production;
  • names of all universities across South Africa must represent the democratic ideals of South Africa;
  • all universities must abide by and implement the legislative framework of higher education.

SAUS claim the above should be utilized as a measure of how far the sector has come and what direction it ought to be taking.


On a November 2016 Al jazeera article, a University of Cape Town (UCT) student activist, wrote “South Africa’s educational system is still rooted in the colonial and apartheid eras, and their injustices persist in its structure and financial set-up. Both private and public universities in South Africa charge fees and offer different amounts of financial aid along with a national loans system”, according to renowned activist Brian Kamanzi. Over the years, enrolment in the country’s 26 (now 28, addition to first ever universities in Kimberly and Mbombela) higher education institutions has steadily grown enrolment numbers.

Under the DHET’s watch, enrollment in both tertiary and technical/vocational post-secondary education (TVET) has increased considerably. Enrollments at university-level institutions increased by 13 percent between 2010 and 2014, from 983,703 to approximately 1.1 million students. In the TVET sector, enrollment almost doubled from 405,275 students in 2010 to 781,378 in 2014. According to World Education News and Reviews (WENR), pre 2015/16 Free Fee national protests.  I would be interesting to know what the Free Education enrolment numbers will be in 2018.

Moreso, having more campuses and students to facilitate free education is one thing, the standards of that degree or diploma is an important factor too. Quality assurance in South African higher education involves institutional oversight and program-based accreditation under the auspices of the Council on Higher Education (CHE) and the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). As per the current legislative framework, the Higher Education Act of 1997, the CHE is tasked with setting the quality standards which must be met by institutions seeking accreditation, according to WENR.

In the article Progress Made in Implementing Free Higher Education reported by SA News, on April 24, 2018 DHET Minister Naledi Pandor says progress has been made to ensure that the new bursary scheme is implemented successfully. This comes after government’s announcement in 2017 that free education would be implemented to support poor students (undergraduate and postgraduate studies) whose parents’ combined annual income is R350 000 or less.

The Minister also said that while NSFAS migrated fully to the new “student-centred model”, there are still some challenges with finalising the 2017 intake, especially where qualifying students have not yet signed their loan agreement forms. “I am aware that some continuing senior students have not yet had their funding finalised for the 2017 academic year” says the February 2018 appointed minister.

In this transformation post Blade Nzimande (the DHET, now Transport Minister) era, Honourable Naledi Pandor says “students, we are attending to these problems and I urge you to sign your bursary agreements as soon as they are available. Any senior students who have not signed their 2017 loan agreement forms or schedule of particulars must do so immediately. You have a responsibility to ensure that the institution that supported you is paid.” 

On a February 2017 article by The Conversation, Deputy Dean of the University of Pretoria, Prof B Wingfield, makes a good note that for decolonised education to be introduced, the existing system must be overthrown and the people it’s supposed to serve must define it for themselves. To this essay’s understanding, that is to say to ‘Africanize’ would be a more constructive phrase, with intent to assess and then outphase higher education structures failing to transform adjacent social interests of the masses.

Prof Wingfield later states, the challenge for tertiary educations in South Africa is to ensure that the curriculum presented is based on international best practice. We cannot limit the knowledge base of South Africa’s next generations to only regional knowledge and culture. This would be tantamount to “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. We must however, be locally relevant and celebrate the research and researchers in South Africa.

Considering a student perspective, a 2016 News 24 article asked a student to explain decolonised education, and why they want it.

“The current curriculum dehumanises black students. We study all these dead white men who presided over our oppression, and we are made to use their thinking as a standard and as a point of departure. Our own thinking as Africans has been undermined. We must have our own education from our own continent. Decolonisation advances the interests of Africans, instead of advancing Eurocentric interests. ‘Eurocentrism’ does not serve our interests culturally, socially, economically. It does not resolve the issues of Africa.”

Education is not neutral, it serves particular interests.

Many thought it was just for fees. Sub Saharan Africa is one of the poorest economies, and certainly the region has the most under transformed higher education landscape, which must change for the masses, not just a few. Under the banner of Free Education in South African Universities, this is possible not just for national, but for regional growth.

Thousands of students across South Africa shared similar sentiments, which called for protest in the months of September through to November exam periods in 2015 and 2017 in particular. It was for a cause that goes beyond short term hurdles, but more importantly, for a sustainable Afrocentric intellectual identity as we have heard from activists, professors and students alike.


Earlier this year Statistics South Africa wrote, “after three years since the #FeesMustFall campaign erupted on campuses across the country. Thousands of students protested over rising tuition fees. On the back of frustration over the lack of funding for poorer students, the movement revived, in a big way, the debate over whether South Africa should offer free tertiary education.”

The socio-economic reality is that many bright, aspiring students fall short of obtaining a diploma or degree due to lack of money. Almost two in every ten potential learners indicated that they could not attend an educational institution (either a school or tertiary institution) due to lack of money to pay for fees, according to Stats SA’s latest General Household Survey.

For most individuals, the return on investment of a tertiary education is high. Take the unemployment rate. For graduates living in South Africa the unemployment rate in the second quarter of 2017 stood at 7,4%. Compare this with those with only a matric qualification (27,9%) and the overall national unemployment rate (27,7%), according to Quarterly Labour Force Survey, 2nd Quarter 2017.

A serious investment in tertiary education is needed. Public universities in South Africa are divided into three types: traditional universities, which offer theoretically-oriented university degrees; universities of technology (formerly known as “technikons”), which offer vocational oriented diplomas and degrees (TVET); and comprehensive universities, which offer a combination of both types of qualification.

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