Wreaking destruction: University of Cape Town students vandalise a statue during a Fees Must Fall protest, which centred on free higher education. Laboratories, libraries and buildings were set alight and vandalised on campuses across the country during the protests. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/ THE TIMES

The damage caused by protesting students in the Fees Must Fall movement has cost universities more than R786m, equivalent to the annual state subsidy provided to a small university, it emerged in parliament on Tuesday.

In a detailed written reply to questions posed by the DA, higher education and training minister Naledi Pandor spelt out the destruction wrought to universities over a three-year period, cataloguing how laboratories, libraries and buildings were set alight and vandalised on campuses across the country. Fees Must Fall was a student movement that began in 2015, and centred on a campaign for free higher education.

The direct damage reported by the universities stood at R492.4m in 2015/2016, R237.7m in 2016/2017 and R56.5m in 2017/2018. The hardest-hit institutions were North West University, which sustained R198m in damage after its Mafikeng campus was set alight; the University of Johannesburg, which saw fire and vandalism cause damage worth R144m and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which estimated the damage done to its torched law library and vandalised buildings at more than R100m.

'Huge setback'

Pandor’s spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele, said the minister was deeply concerned about the financial implications of the damage done to universities. "We need to find money that could have been used for something else. It is a huge setback to have to rebuild infrastructure that was already provided," the spokesperson said.

DA shadow minister of higher education and training Belinda Bozzoli said universities got on average a billion rand each per year from the state, and a smaller university would typically get a subsidy of about R800m. That figure would have built at least two new residences for students at a poorer university, or fund thousands of student’s expenses, she said.

"What appalls me ... is not only the monetary value of the disruptions, but also the aggression and destructiveness of the students and unionised staff on the campuses mentioned.

"The aggression — ranging from intimidation of other people, students and staff, through to looting of university property, right down to burning down buildings such as bookshops, lecture halls and residences — is a sign of very serious breakdown in the social contract, and testimony to the fact that our institutions of learning have become unpleasant and often frightening places to learn and teach. Prof Bongani Mayosi’s suicide is but the most extreme example of how soul-destroying life can be on one of our campuses," Bozzoli said.

Mayosi, who was dean of the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town, committed suicide on July 27.

"The costs to universities have been astronomical," said Universities SA CEO Ahmed Bawa. "I suspect the costs are much more substantial, as these figures do not include the costs of additional security or the loss of study time," he said.

"This period has damaged institutions, but we are confident the quality of education is still at a decent level," he said, while conceding that some of the infrastructure that had been destroyed, such as libraries, was virtually impossible to replace.

Bawa said universities still faced disruption, particularly the historically disadvantaged institutions, as students continued to protest over problems with their financial aid and inadequate accommodation.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za

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