D-Day for NUL, govt standoff

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Professor Nqosa Mahao

Billy Ntaote

THE National University of Lesotho (NUL) management will tomorrow meet Development Planning Minister Semano Sekatle in a bid to end a standoff that resulted in the suspension of lectures on Tuesday last week.

The NUL Senate yesterday de-escalated the impasse by announcing the resumption of lectures from next Monday, with students allowed to arrive on campus from Saturday.

In a statement, the NUL Senate also said a recovery plan to make up for the lost lectures would be announced “in due course”. It also expressed optimism that there would be a positive outcome in the meeting between NUL management and the minister.

“Senate expresses its fervent hope that the meeting will resolve definitively the debacle about the shortfall. Senate also calls upon the Heads of Churches, as eminent persons in our society, to assist in mediating to a final solution all of the issues at the heart of this grave challenge which threatens the future of the young people currently studying at the National University of Lesotho,” reads part of the statement.

The higher education institution suspended lectures on Tuesday last week after student protests at its Roma and Maseru campuses turned violent.

The protests were over Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili’s delay in responding to their 48 hour ultimatum to ensure their tuition fees were fully paid. The petition had been presented to the premier on 30 March 2017.

Dr Mosisili eventually responded last week saying some of the issues raised by the students were already under discussion between the government and the NUL management.

The university had proposed a 16-49 percent tuition hike for first year students and 1-42 percent for senior students — depending on the programme of study — for the 2016/2017 academic year. The fee structure was effected without the input of the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS) which could only afford a 10 percent increase across the board.

The NMDS is mandated with paying tuition fees, costs of research, book allowances, accommodation and food allowances among other costs for selected students.

NUL Vice-Chancellor Professor Nqosa Mahao told the Lesotho Times last week the tuition hikes were necessary to offset the high costs of running the university which included staff salaries.

He said NUL could fail to pay salaries for the month of June if the NMDS rejected paying for the new fee structure.

Prof Mahao also declined the government’s request to allow lectures to continue while negotiations with the Development Planning ministry were ongoing.

He had argued that the university had not been given any guarantees that the requested fee structure would be honoured by the government through the NMDS hence the decision to suspend lectures.

However, Development Planning Minister Semano Sekatle said the university’s decision to increase the fees had been unilateral and unaffordable for the NMDS.

He also accused the students of being politically-motivated in protesting against the government instead of against the university which had raised their fees.

The back and forth between the two sides continued this week, with Mr Sekata saying his ministry was still reviewing the proposed fee structures.

After completing his review of the proposal, Mr Sekata would then present it to Finance Minister Tlohang Sekhamane for authorisation.

“As a government, we need a holistic assessment of these issues since we are the sole sponsor of the university,” Mr Sekata said.

“We also want to look at the proposed increases to critical courses like sciences and agriculture. We cannot allow the already low enrolment in those courses to get worse by becoming more expensive.

“As a country, we would end up only excelling in social sciences and humanities.”

For his part, Prof Mahao said the university had in February this year agreed with then acting Development Planning minister Joshua Setipa to hold off demands for the students to pay the new fees structures until 1 March 2017. He said Mr Setipa had promised to give the university feedback on whether they would pay the difference or not.

Prof Mahao said when Mr Sekatle was appointed as Development Planning minister later in February, he was given a “clear report” of what had transpired by Mr Setipa.

“Two weeks ago, in a telephonic conversation, the minister said he had received what he needed to go ahead to present a proposal to the Finance minister, and that is a report of the shortfall from the NMDS,” the NUL vice-chancellor said.

“In return, I informed him that exams start on 24 April 2017 and the students would not be allowed to sit for the exams without having cleared their tuition debts and he promised the shortfall would have been addressed by that time.”

Prof Mahao said he engaged Mr Sekatle to assist in reassuring the protesting students last week.

“I requested that he assist me with his deputy principal secretary and a legal officer of the ministry who would come explain to the NUL students why they should stop their demonstration and not petition the prime minister,” he said.

“However, even after being addressed and promised that the government was doing all it could to rescue them, the students went ahead with their protest march and petitioned the prime minister. So they (government) are now trying to punish the students by not addressing their concerns.”

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