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Universities in South Africa are in an impasse. Following widespread student protests last year, their fee levels are frozen. Even with the freeze, a large majority of South African families cannot afford university education, but the government’s commission to explore new ways of funding students will now only report in 2017.

Meanwhile, inflation is at a brisk 6.3 per cent and many universities are headed for substantial deficits. Universities are pushing to increase their fees; student organisations are planning widespread protests, intended to force campuses to close.

Last year’s student protests, a loose coalition assembled around the #FeesMustFall hashtag, were the most effective since the apartheid years. Countrywide campus protests culminated in a march on parliament and a hasty retreat by president Jacob Zuma and minister of higher education and training Blade Nzimande. Proposed fee increases of up to 12 per cent were scrapped and universities partially compensated for lost revenues.

This, however, was a compromise that satisfied no one. Universities' costs have continued to rise and budgets are now at breaking point. Student movements want “free education” – full subsidy of tuition from the fiscus – but the economy is teetering on recession and the money isn’t there.

Everyone acknowledges the inequity of the “missing middle” – the large number of working families that earn insufficient to send anyone to any university, whether fees remain frozen or not.

This short-term settlement has largely held through the first semester of the current academic year (which runs from February to November in South Africa). But a number of key pressures are now converging.

First, all universities must now set budgets for 2017. The Council on Higher Education, which has a statutory responsibility to advise government, has produced an assessment across the sector and recommended an across-the-board fee increase in line with inflation.

Second, the commission headed by Judge Jonathan Heher, which must make recommendations on the feasibility of fee-free higher education in training, has launched its public hearings. This has provided a platform for student organisations.

Third, the ANC government has been weakened by its worst election results since coming to power in 1994. This month’s municipal elections have further exacerbated the crisis of poverty, high unemployment and key service failures across South Africa’s townships, adding further impetus to student movements.

Faced with these circumstances, a much-anticipated announcement of student fees for 2017 was to have been last Friday. But the minister blinked, and the decision was postponed for “further consultations”.

Student leaders have responded by calling for protests across all campuses. At the University of Pretoria, where there have been continuing protests, SRC President Thabo Shingange told News24 that students would meet on Monday to discuss what to do: "This meeting will unpack the proposals and the implications within the University of Pretoria and allow for students to voice their concerns. The students will give us a direction in terms of what the next step will be.”

University of Cape Town student leader Masixole Mlandu said “our struggle was about free quality education and [the minister] must expect more than what he saw last year. It's about time that the struggle for students goes beyond the corridors of institutions.”

If student protests do spread beyond university campuses, they may ignite a febrile political environment exacerbated by the outcomes of the municipal elections. Protests in 2016 were characterised by alliances between student movements and low-paid workers. This forced the University of Cape Town, for example, to re-employ at considerable cost a large number of service staff who had been outsourced some 15 years ago.

Since then, the ANC has lost control of 27 municipalities, including half the country’s major cities, and seen its popular support slump to an all-time low, widely interpreted as an indictment of the government’s incompetence. The Economic Freedom Fighters, a new political party focused on issues of poverty and the redistribution of resources, have taken just over 8 per cent of the popular vote from the ANC and is a significant force in student politics; the party was among the first to announce a boycott of the Heher Commission’s public hearings because there is no upfront commitment to free education.

Behind these headlines, a broad consensus is emerging that South Africa needs a hybrid system of student – and university – funding, that combines fees with an extended and enhanced means-linked bursary and loan system. The present impasse is the worst of all options.

The top earning 20 per cent – where a large majority of South African wealth is concentrated – is benefiting from the fees freeze, which is the equivalent of a sharply regressive tax. At the same time, and even while frozen, university is an unattainable dream for a large majority of young South Africans.

Meanwhile, universities are close to crippling deficits that must, with time, damage their feasibility.

But the journey to any consensus is set to be long and difficult. There are hard and volatile times ahead.

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