The beginning of 2019 has not been a smooth one for a number of South African universities. Many academically eligible students faced (and continue to face) financial exclusion — an age-old mechanism employed by universities and perpetuated by the lack of access to funding and a glitchy NSFAS. Institutions such as Wits, UKZN and DUT were able to mobilise students to express their rejection of this exclusion and to lobby university managements, to heed the calls of the students. The air of defiance has now spread to Stellenbosch University, where students have expressed a vehement rejection of the R9 evening shuttle fee that students who live off campus will have to incur.
Why is the implementation of this fee problematic?
The reasons given for the implantation of this fee are flawed. Not only have they been rejected by the students, but their validity has been questioned and critiqued. Platforms upon which this has taken place include a discussion hosted by students on the evening of Sunday 24 February as well as during the day on Monday 25 February. The main reason given by SU management for the implementation of the R9 fee is that it will deter students from misusing the evening shuttles.
This reason has been challenged on various levels. Students questioned whether SU had proof of the misuse of shuttles. Moreover, the day shuttle — operating between main campus and Coetzenberg, where many students park their cars — would be more prone to misuse than the evening shuttle as it is used without having to book in advance. However, there has been no talk of charging students for using the day shuttle. The charge is only imposed on students using the evening shuttles; students who do not have cars to park at Coetzenberg.
The underlying problem with this, which were raised at the discussion, is SU’s compliance in exclusion and unequal treatment of students. Given that the evening shuttle operates within a 5km radius — a radius which encompasses the lower income areas in Stellenbosch — it has been highlighted that the many people using the evening shuttle service are already financially excluded and thus cannot afford to pay the R9, per single trip, for the shuttle. It is evident that SU management is aware of this as they have made provision for a transport grant available to students. To access this grant, students are required to prove their neediness. In other words, students ought to perform their pain and poverty once more.
Even if the bureaucracy of the grant system were to be successful, it has two inherent flaws: firstly, concretely, it does not account for the “missing middle” student demographic other than on a “case-by-case basis”, but secondly and fundamentally, it is a symbol — or symptom — of a specific managerial perspective that a university should be run as a business. This “business” will incentivise its “customers’” behaviour by manipulating the prices of its services. Not only is this problematic because education should not be commodified, but it is also unfair within the Neoliberal framework: the university has an effective monopoly on its “market sector”.
“Ours is clear, we don’t have money. We reject the grant because it is going to subject us to poverty. [The grant encourages a system where] those who don’t have enough funds [have to] beg and be beggars.”— Jeff, prim of students who live off campus
Furthermore, it was also highlighted at the discussion that the implementation of this fee would be inherently exclusive. Currently, the existing mechanisms of exclusion include the limited number of operating shuttles, subjecting students to either extended waiting periods or to find alternative transport arrangements. In addition to this, the booking system means that students who fail to book are excluded and thus have to make alternative transport arrangements. The limitations to the accessibility of the shuttles will be further entrenched by the R9 fee. Students expressed how the implementation of this fee seems more like an attempt from the university to decrease the demand for the evening shuttle service, while failing to increase the supply and frequency of the shuttles.
What are the students demanding?
“We need commitment; we are not here to play.”— Zizo Vokwana, chair of SASCO
A memorandum of demands will be handed to SU management at Admin B after a peaceful protest. This protest will commence outside the Van Der Sterr building on Wednesday, 27 February at 13:00. The lists of demands include:
- The scrapping of the R9 fee
- Increased frequency of the evening shuttles
- Free and reliable transport for University staff members who work until late
There was a strong commitment from the students to take further action, should SU management fail to respond to the list of demands and go ahead with implementing the fee on Friday 1 March. Furthermore, there has been a request to rally and mobilise as many people as possible. Even though the shuttles are not used by every student, this is an issue that affects (directly and indirectly) all students.
“Still [we are] relentless in the continuation of the fight for that distant glitter of freedom.”— Shaeera Kalla
Update on 2019-02-28
Update by Paul Joubert
In a new communique from University management, sent via email to all students, it is implied that students might receive exemption automatically. This, however, is not entirely clear:
… students who are financially needy get a concession and thus do not need to pay for this service. This concession applies to students receiving NSFAS support and students in the ‘missing middle’ who receive SU financial aid (i.e. students who are assessed to have a joint annual household income of R600 000 or below). Students who need to use the SU Evening Shuttle but do not fall in these categories can make a special application for a concession and will also be considered for support.
Only later on, this is clarified:
If you are registered as NSFAS or SU Bursary recipient (joint household of R600 000 or less) you will be able to book the trip without payment.
If you fall outside this group but experience financial stress, send an email to Mr Grant Williams at (email@example.com) and include your name and student number and the required number of trips you need and on which route.
Once it is confirmed that you qualify for a concession you will be contacted, and the trip allocation will be credited onto your Student Card.
In the closing paragraph, management’s position is summed up:
Unfortunately, the SU Night Shuttle service cannot be free to everybody in the long term, because that would imply that some of the student fees of users who have no reasonable chance to use the night shuttle to their homes nearby Stellenbosch campus (the majority of SU students), pay for the few hundred students who do need the service. The introduction of a fee system, albeit via full concessions for the groups outlined above, implements the principle of “user pay”, which brings fiscal discipline to the use of the service. It is the university’s obligation to ensure the long-term sustainability of all SU services and the user-pay principle is an integral part of exercising that responsibility. In addition, the fee addresses the concerns of taxi and private transport operators that they cannot compete with a fee-free service. The latter has a negative impact on relations with our community as well as on the establishment and expansion of public transport services.
This has further implications:
- University management is concerned that, if the shuttle service is to be free, students who do not use the shuttle will have to subsidise other students’ use. This is an irrelevant point as taxpayers have already been paying for government subsidies for every student, making it a natural fact that the privileged care for the underprivileged.
- The reference to “fiscal discipline” implies that management sees providing services without additional charge as financially irresponsible and risky. This exposes their hesitance to grant any privileges, financially or not, to needy students.
- Management is concerned that providing a service without additional charge would negatively impact other businesses that would be able to profit from students’ pain, and thus reason that they should do so as well. This also implies that they do not want to provide the service if an outside organisation can do so. Furthermore, universities such as UCT have solved this “issue” by actively collaborating with other businesses in their plight to provide transport for their students.