NMMU threatens early shutdown if normalcy does not return in two weeks

BY JESICA SLABBERT - SEPTEMBER 28, 2016

Should academic activities not resume in two weeks from the 26th of September, then the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) will be forced to close the 2016 academic - which means students will lose out on exams and the scheduled graduations, and will need to repeat the year in 2017.

That was the message at a press briefing called by the NMMU on Tuesday to address the current situation and the university's position on #FeesMustFall protests that broke out last week Monday across the country after the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, recommended an 8% fee increment for affording students.

“The national campaign has been waged by students across the country; the majority of these students waging this campaign are against free education for the poor only and also financial assistance for the ‘missing middle’. They want government to pronounce on free education for all, and they see the Universities as the site of pursuing their struggle,” Acting NMMU Vice-Chancellor, Dr Sibongile Muthwa, told reporters.

“We have actually tried to persuade our students that there is no reason we see, why their struggle cannot be pursued while they are back in classes and learning. Because their campaign talks to the issues that cannot be resolved soon, this is a long term campaign.”

She said that the NMMU is committed to opening a dialogue with the students.

“The essence of the disagreement with the students is that they wish to wage this campaign for free education while they are not attending classes,” said Dr Muthwa.

She said that this year, the NMMU out of its own pocket, assisted those who qualified for the 2015 debt relief; academically deserving and financially needy students, giving these students the opportunity to return to the University to continue their studie. This loan funding included 1 531 students, which amounted to R21 million.

For the first time, it also offered assistance with down payment relief for students from the “missing middle”. Altogether, NMMU assisted 5 043 students, resulting in a R30 million negative cash flow at the end of February.

The NMMU further assisted zero Expected Family Contribution (EFC) students with a contribution towards books, food and accommodation. This amounted to R25.4 million. In addition, NMMU absorbed the cost (R34.5m) of ending outsourcing.

To date, the accumulated fees debt for NMMU is R198 million as of 31 August 2016.

“We cannot continue to run operations sustainably and offer quality education if we do not accept the offer that government has put out there of raising the fees by 8% for those that can pay. The 8% proposal does not impact the NSFAS category of students and the ‘missing middle’ as defined by government, they will only pay the 2015 rate while the 8% will be covered by the government grant,” said Dr Muthwa.

She said that the NMMU recognises that, due to the recent disruptions to academic activities, contingencies need to be put in place to catch up lost teaching time and to accommodate tests that had to be postponed and due dates for assignments.

The Executive Deans of each faculty are exploring ways on how best to address this in the interests of all students. This includes engaging faculty management committees to share information and give direction in this regard. There are obviously practical challenges to how much can be caught up this year if the forced closure of campuses and disruption of services continues.

“If the students push on and we do not get back to classes, we are actually going to lose 2016 as an academic year. The activities and all the exams, preparations, graduations that were going to be finalised in 2016 will have to move to 2017,”said the Vice Chancellor.

NMMU has stated that they are committed to addressing the issues being raised by students, but only while the academic programme is continuing.

“Should the university have to take the 0% fee increment for 2017, it will accumulate a short of R400 million in operational losses, which is basically a debt we cannot escape,” said NMMU Executive Director of Finance, Mike Monaghan.

Many students at NMMU have also raised concerns that the current protests are negatively affecting their academic year, and fear that they might have to repeat their years’ worth of studies because they have been unable to attend class, hand in assignments and write tests.

The Acting Vice-Chancellor had stated that repeating their year was not in the plans, and that the university’s faculty head were going to create contingencies that will mitigate the negative impact of the lost time.

“We would like to finish this year’s business in 2016, because we are quite mindful that the majority of our students cannot afford to repeat a year because of the discrepancies. Our primary focus at the moment is to make sure that we finish this academic year successfully so that it does not lead into 2017,” said Dr Sibongile.

NMMU has stated that they would like to resume academic activities as soon as Wednesday, but cannot do so until the situation with the protesting student’s changes for the better.