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S.Africa allows university fee hikes as protests loom

South Africa on Monday gave universities the go-ahead to raise student fees by up to eight percent, as campuses braced for a resurgence of protests that shook the government last year.

Student groups in 2015 secured a zero percent fee increase after weeks of demonstrations, and had demanded a freeze on all fees until a commission into university funding was complete.

But Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande gave universities the green light to raise fees for the 2017 academic year.

“Our universities face an extremely difficult financial situation,” Nzimande said at a press conference in Pretoria.

“The effects of last year’s moratorium on fee adjustments have added to these challenges… Starving our universities of funding is not the way to go.”

Nzimande recommended universities raise their fees “not above eight percent”.

University of Cape Town (UCT) vice-chancellor Max Price said failing to increase fees would result in hundreds of jobs lost, and reduce financial aid to poor students.

“Either we have to accept the decline in the kinds of universities we have and the funding for students, or we have to put up the fees to compensate,” he told state broadcaster SABC.

Nzimande said the government would cover the increase for students from families earning less than 600,000 rand a year ($42,600).

UCT cancelled all classes Monday ahead of Nzimande’s announcement, while several other campuses beefed up security and warned students to protest peacefully.

Students at University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg quickly rejected the minister’s announcement.

“We need intervention now. At the beginning of next year, thousands of students are going to be excluded again,” Fasiha Hassan, student council secretary-general, told local broadcaster eNCA.

“Students are angry and rightfully so, because our issues haven’t been dealt with.”

Universities were rocked last year by violent student protests, with several campuses temporarily shut down and riot police clashing with students outside parliament.

The issue of education fees ignited widespread frustration over a lack of opportunities for young South Africans, worsened by a weakening economy and high unemployment.