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UKZN Executive disappointed by outcome in negotiations with students

The Executive Management of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) would like to inform all stakeholders, internal and external, including parents and guardians, that despite exhausting every effort within our means to meet all of the students latest demands, we have now been advised that two financially crippling demands must still be met.

UKZN Executive Management reiterates it has considered and conceded to most of its students’ issues but cannot afford any further financial concessions that will jeopardise the sustainability of the institution even further.

As a caring university, the record will show that in the past three years, we maintained an open-door policy, pursued transparent and humane approaches, and always worked within the ambit of our governance structures and processes to settle disputes and demands from our student leadership.

At the first engagement this year with the SRC leadership on 9 February, both parties agreed that the university's stability and sustainability is crucial for donor confidence and support and to protect the reputation and future of the university.

At this meeting, the SRC put forward 17 requests and management fully agreed to 14 of these requests and granted additional concessions to another two requests. The details of these were outlined and communicated to all stakeholders on 10 February 2021. By any standard, this is an indication that the SRC was successful, and in fact victory statements were circulated far and wide by some student leaders citing the win it had achieved. Further meetings were requested on 15 and 17 February 2021 to engage further.

Despite our very best concessions, the student leadership has now completely rejected the university’s position on three matters: (1) Immediate return of all students to our campuses and residences; (2) Waiver of the requirement for students to pay all amounts committed to in their 2020 repayment commitments; and (3) Reversal of 100% of residence fees charged during periods when residences were not occupied during 2020.

On (1) a return of all students to campus immediately equates to a high risk for COVID-19 fatalities. For UKZN, this is an area of highest risk as the university has a total student population of close to 50 000 students and in excess of 22 000 students placed in over 200 residences located in the municipalities of eThekwini and uMsunduzi – both these municipalities are in districts that have been declared coronavirus hotspots due to their high numbers of active cases.

Reports show that young people are particularly susceptible to the new strain of the coronavirus, which has now taken hold in our country, with the KwaZulu-Natal province being among the worst impacted.

The university has already made a decision to continue with remote online learning for the first semester. The current proposal is to implement a staggered approach to phase-in the reopening of on-campus academic activities and related return of up to 66% of registered students by end of April 2021. In addition, the university plans to return 100% of registered students at the start of the 2nd semester. At all times we will be guided by the state of the COVID-19 pandemic and the predicted third wave of coronavirus infections.

On (2) the university has already implemented processes (through financial clearance concessions) that effectively ensure that no single student is required to pay 100% of their debt in full prior to registration. This is a clear sign that the university is committed to fulfilling our social responsibility of enabling academically successful students from previously disadvantaged communities to have a reasonable opportunity to access higher education. The UKZN package of financial concessions is one of the most generous and progressive in South Africa. Compared to other public universities in South Africa, our registration and historic debt processes are by far the most enabling for UKZN students.

UKZN has the highest student debt of all public universities in the country, while payments required towards student debt remain among the lowest – notably because most universities require their students to settle their debt in full prior to registration.

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, the university allowed students with financial challenges to revise their repayment commitments. A large number of students took advantage of this, which is evidence that they take their commitments to the university seriously, and that the revision process was known. These payments are already set at the lowest possible level, and any further reduction will most certainly jeopardise the university's financial stability.

The university’s student debt figures are staggering. In January 2020, it was reported that the student debt of all South African public universities amounted to R9 billion. UKZN's current student debt of R1.6 billion as at 31 December 2020 equates to 18% of the total student debt for the universities sector and is among the highest of all South African public universities. Accordingly, with student debt to UKZN in excess of R1.6 billion, the university is not in a position to waive the requirement for students to pay all amounts committed to in their 2020 debt acknowledgements and repayment plans.

Demand (3) would amount to a staggering R407 million (55%) reduction in residence fees for 2020 and increases the residence funds deficit to R460 million. As a concession, management agreed that because students were prevented from occupying residences through no fault of their own or the university due to the COVID-19 lockdown, it would be deemed reasonable to consider a partial reversal of 2020 residence fee charges. However, this reversal can only be to the extent of variable costs savings realised due to non-occupancy of the residences.

Despite the rejection by the student leadership, management is still open and committed to engage further.

Normah Zondo
Executive Director: Corporate Relations (Acting)
University of KwaZulu-Natal

For further information, contact: Sejal Desai, Media Liaison Officer on 031 260 7829 / 083 284 9333 or at [email protected].

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