The rollback of #FeesMustFall successes, and the urgency of higher education transformation

Liza Mfana dwells on the “rollback of #FeesMustFall sucesses, and the urgency of higher education transformation.”

Liza Mfana dwells on the “rollback of #FeesMustFall sucesses, and the urgency of higher education transformation.”

Published Mar 10, 2024


In late 2015, South Africa experienced an upheaval within the higher education sector - from the University of Cape Town (UCT) to the University of Limpopo, Sol Plaatjie University (SPU) to the University of Fort Hare (UFH).

Students took a stand under the banner of #FeesMustFall, calling for an education system that speaks to the African child, and one not reserved for those with money. This struggle achieved many positive outcomes for students, many of which have unfortunately now been reversed.

This article explores the successes of the #FeesMustFall movement, and how they have been rolled back since then.

Successes of the #FeesMustFall Movement:

The #FeesMustFall movement has been shunned by many for having failed to deliver on its primary objectives. Central to these was free education, a curriculum of tertiary institutions that relates to African society, and the removal of colonial statues and symbols in tertiary institutions. In fighting against commoditised access to education, we raised many issues through this movement. We fought against the payment of application fees. We argued that tertiary institutions make millions from these by monetising the desperation of the African child to go to school. These institutions received thousands of applications with non-refundable fees, and only accepted a few applicants. This meant that all who were not accepted donated their fees to the institution.

The #FeesMustFall movement also fought the upfront fees known as registration fees. Before this, SA tertiary institutions demanded thousands of rands to be paid by students upfront before they could register. We could push most institutions into letting students register without paying anything. In the main, we pushed for all students funded by the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and other bursaries to be allowed to register for free. This is a practice that was done by some institutions and not others prior to this movement, and continues to this day. For unfunded students, registration concessions were introduced, where students with debt below a certain threshold were allowed to register for free.

We raised issues about the funding model of the higher education sector. Our main argument was that the government remove the third party from the funding of students and the payment of their allowances. The envisioned implication of this was an education system that facilitated direct payment of student fees to their institutions and allowances to their bank accounts. Our vision was that the government must disband NSFAS and private funding, establish a central database of all students in the country, and take responsibility for study and allowance costs of all students in the country. This was meant to create a situation where all students, irrespective of their financial background, would be funded directly by the government and thereby exist within equitable conditions in the education sector.

The #FeesMustFall movement also spearheaded the conversation around the decolonisation of the higher education curriculum, which continues to be a burning topic discussed in the corridors of higher education. At the centre of this was the demand for the Africanising of the curriculum. This spoke to things such as the language of teaching and learning, the textbooks used to teach and the composition of academic and research staff in tertiary institutions. The movement argued for a move away from an “English dominated education system, towards the inclusion and development of other official languages. We further contended that it cannot be correct that students in African universities are taught from textbooks written in Europe and/or America, and that African literature must be more central in our curriculum.

Finally, there was a call for decolonisation of institutional culture and symbolism. This call which was amplified by the #RhodesMustFall movement, advocated for the removal of colonial statues to reverse the legacy of apartheid. This resulted in acts that saw statues of colonial and apartheid figureheads such as Cecil John Rhodes at UCT, and CR Swarts at the University of the Free State (UFS), being removed through institutional processes and/or student action. In addition to this, student leaders and activists ensured that they raised a range of policy initiatives that sought to positively influence the culture of these institutions to be more inclusive of our diversity as South Africans.

Reflection on the Roll Back of these #FeesMustFall Successes:

The strides made to advance the scrapping of application and registration fees, and the implementation of a direct payment system have either been rolled back completely or intentionally misinterpreted. This has resulted in a situation where the children who go into higher education are denied the benefits of applying and registering for free. In terms of application fees, many institutions have post the Covid-19 pandemic, imposed fees on all applications. It was widely reported that many institutions have made millions from this process, while only a margin of students were accepted. This is ‘daylight robbery as many students benefit nothing from this transaction. Prospective students and their parents are forced to pay to apply, a practice that has no logical or financial basis. This resurrection of these application fees in an arguably coordinated manner, and the insistence on registration fees, is a direct attack on the seemingly minor, yet significant successes of the #FeesMustFall movement in removing them.

The failed direct payment scheme that is not direct, as implemented by the Department of Higher Education and Training, Science, and Innovation, is arguably the most famous roll-back of #FeesMustFall successes. There was an intentional misconstruing of the direct payment scheme which was proposed by students. Instead of a system where students were paid directly by the department, the department introduced another layer of external parties on top of NSFAS – a direct contradiction to the proposal of students.

The appointment of service providers who have been alleged to be corrupt, at the cost of taxpayer’s money, is a direct disregard of our proposal as students in favour of corrupt practices. The children of SA have been failed by this system as many ended up not getting their allowances in 2023, or getting them very late. This has resulted in a direct roll-back of the proposal by students which was driving us towards free education.

Finally, on the project to transform the education system, we have seen an organised effort to dilute the gains of decolonizing the curriculum and institutional cultures. In terms of the curriculum, the discussion has been hijacked and diluted by academics.

Since #FeesMustFall, academics have been publishing books and papers which seek to whitewash and water down the concepts. It has resulted in a situation where an academic battle surrounding decolonisation has ensued, thereby diverting the project away from implementation, towards an argument of who understands it better. The decolonisation of institutional cultures has also been rolled back. Many institutions have not only watered down the policy interventions of #FeesMustFall and its ripple events, but have repealed or amended these policies in the opposite direction. I could go on and on, but the general approach of resisting transformation in the space of higher education is undoubtedly a direct attack against the gains of #FeesMustFall.

Concluding Remarks:

While conceding that the #FeesMustFall movement was not perfect and did not deliver the call for free, decolonised and quality education. It cannot be said that the movement achieved nothing. Not only did we change the trajectory of discourse in higher education forever. The movement provided various tangible successes that benefited students and taxpayers of SA. We successfully fought against the payment application fees. We were able to manoeuvre successfully around the issue of students paying registration fees. We were able to accelerate higher education transformation. Unfortunately, we are all forced to watch a situation where all we fought for, all we were suspended and expelled for, and our colleagues were even killed for - being rolled back and reduced to nothing. Something must give! Young people, students, progressive academics, taxpayers, and all who care about SA education, need to take steps to fix these matters.

Liza Mfana is an activist, an advocate for liberatory pedagogy, an aspiring developmental economist, and a fighter. Mfana is an activate and YALI Alumni, and currently studying towards his Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Fort Hare.

Sunday Independent