MASERU – National University of Lesotho (NUL) students will file an application in the High Court tomorrow in a bid to force the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS) to pay them allowances for June and July. Advocate Koili Ndebele, who is representing the students, told the Sunday Express on Friday that the Students Representative Council (SRC) and the Students Union had instructed him to file the papers in the High Court tomorrow.
The respondents are the NMDS, its director Dr Letholetseng Ntsike, Development Planning Minister Dr Moeketsi Majoro, Finance Minister Dr Leketekete Ketso and the Attorney General Advocate Tšokolo Makhethe KC. The university was not cited because “it has no interest in matters affecting students and NMDS,” according to the court papers. The court case comes a week after the university was rocked by violent protests that forced the closure of the institution.
The students were protesting against a cut in their allowances by the National Manpower Development Secretariat (NMDS).
The NMDS told the students that they would not be getting their food and rent allowances for June and July because the second semester had been reduced by two months. The decision incensed students torching the protests. The university was subsequently shut down last Wednesday.
The students are challenging the NMDS’ decision to withhold the money which they are arguing was done unilaterally.
They want the High Court to declare the decision null and void and of no force and effect. SRC president, Caston Thaanyane, says in an affidavit that the loan bursary agreements limits Ntsike to the job of determining “from time to time the procedure for disbursing the food allowance to the” students not to decide whether to pay them or not. “The government shall at all times ensure that the borrower is well fed so as to enable him/her to further his/her studies vigorously,” says Thaanyane in the affidavit, quoting from the Loan Bursary Agreement.
Thaanyane argues that as Ntsike and the NMDS council released a lump sum that is stipulated as a books allowance at the beginning of the academic year, they are contractually bound to disburse the remaining balance “proportionally for the duration of that academic year”. “If the academic year is longer, it is the discretion of the respondents to sub-divide the remaining balance in a manner that would suit same,” says Thaanyane. “I aver that even in the case where the academic year, for whatever reason, is shortened the respondents should disburse the said monies proportionally in a manner that would fit or suit the academic year.
“There are even instances in the past where respondents had discretionally disbursed the entire lump sum at the very beginning of the academic year,” he says. Thaanyane says in 2011/2012 academic year the NMDS discretionally and proportionally disbursed the students’ monies in equal amounts of M1 400 per month to cover food and shelter.
The NMDS is arguing that since lectures are going to end in May, it should not pay the students’ stipends for June and July when the academic year was due to end.
It argues it must not pay for the period that students would not be attending classes. The latest crisis at the university can be traced to the strike by lecturers and researchers in the 2011/12 academic year who downed tools to press for better working conditions and salaries. The university was shut down for two months. This subsequently shifted the first semester exams from December to February with the final exams being written in July instead of May.
This means the academic year ended in July and not May as was expected. The graduation ceremony which was supposed to be held in August was then pushed to end of October. The ripple effects of this affected the current academic year in that it was opened two months later than it is customarily opened. The NUL Senate sought to contain this ripple effect by championing a two months recovery plan with the aim to ensure that the workload of the entire academic year was squeezed within eight months instead of the usual 10.
To achieve this, the Senate resolved that the students should attend classes on weekends and holidays. The net effect of these adjustments was that the period of two months that was cut off from the academic calendar was made up for in the extra hours of classes and lectures on weekends and holidays. “By the time the resolution for the recovery plan was taken and a plan put into effect, the government and the students had already signed the loan bursary agreements,” Thaanyane argues.
He says Ntsike had already entered the amount of the average costs on each student’s record. “And surely that amount had been deemed to be the national costs of the students’ educational course for the year 2012/2013.” He says the money that would be released to the students in terms of their contracts with NMDS for the months of June and July should be disbursed before then so that they should use it for attending the extra lessons.
“This is because the extra classes were meant to make up for the months of June and July.”