University students brought the Higher Education Stakeholders Summit to a temporary halt on Monday, ordering the return of President Jacob Zuma whom they wanted to address.

Zuma delivered a keynote address at the Higher Education Stakeholder Summit in Kempton Park on Monday before he left to attend to other matters of the African National Congress (ANC) at Luthuli House.

The Higher Education Stakeholder Summit is a one-day gathering to find an immediate solution to the higher education crisis while the Fees Commission continues its investigation into the feasibility of free higher education in the country.

Jacob Zuma

Zuma had pleaded with the Department of Higher Education and university students to find long-lasting solutions to the fee increment issues that have brought academic programmes across the country to a grinding halt.

Led by South African Union of Students (SAUS) secretary-general, Sthembiso Ndlovu, the students interrupted the fees forum’s proceedings after briefly caucusing outside the auditorium where they debated whether or not to boycott the meeting.

“We want the president to come back. And if the president doesn’t come back, our SRCs are saying they don’t see the necessity of bishops being here who do not have the money to fund free education,” Ndlovu said.

“And we have a problem because we sitting in the same house with reactionary vice-chancellors who continue to close down universities and today they come here with their dirty suits to speak English. We also want Treasury to be able to make a commitment today to tell us how much is there for free education.”

Ndlovu also said the Presidential Fees Commission must be allowed to make a submission at the forum, saying that the students were worried about the purpose of the forum since the Commission was not put on the programme.

SAUS president, Avela Mjajubana, accused Zuma and government of “arrogance”, saying they were prioritising party issues when the “country and universities are burning”.

Universities across the country have been plunged into a state of paralysis since the announcement by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande that tertiary institutions could hike their fees for 2017, but not by more than eight percent.

Outgoing Wits University SRC president, Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, said students were the ones who bore the brunt of “exorbitant university education fees”.

“Students are tired of protesting. We’ve been protesting from UKZN for six weeks. Students are tired of being shot at by police,” Mkhatshwa said.

“You should be asking yourselves where are your children when universities are burning. This meeting today must find how free education will be achieved.”

Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande, interjected the students’ submissions, accusing them of “grandstanding because there is media”.

“You’ve been shifting the goalposts all the time because you don’t want us to have a proper conversation and porper discussion. We have agreed with all of you as SRCs on the proposals that I announced about fee increment,” Nzimande said.

“We agreed that we have to respect each other and listen to each other. You can’t say you don’t want to be in a meeting where vice-chancellors are present. I want to make a plea that we continue with the meeting as we had agreed with you.”

The forum has been adjourned for lunch.