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Government promises the poor free undergraduate education

South African vice-chancellors have welcomed a government commitment to introduce free undergraduate education for the poor – but said it should be “underpinned by adequate state funding” of universities – following a budget vote speech in parliament last week announcing an 11.7% increase in state spending on higher education and training.

The vice-chancellors’ group Higher Education South Africa, HESA, also welcomed strategic investments to improve the performance of institutions but noted “with concern the growing list of priority initiatives” of Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande.

In his speech to parliament on Tuesday, Nzimande said education constituted more than 21% of the government’s total allocated expenditure for 2012-13. Of this, his Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) receives R41.1 billion (US$5.3 billion).

The department's budget – excluding skills levies that go to sector education and training authorities, and the National Skills Fund – has increased from R28.2 billion in 2011-12 to R31.5 billion for 2012-13, a rise of R3.3 billion or 11.7%.

Universities will receive R20.9 billion (US$2.3 billion) and further education and training colleges R4.8 billion. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) will get R5 billion for loans and bursaries during the 2012-13 financial year and the rest of the allocation will be shared between statutory tertiary education bodies and the department.

“Government remains committed to the progressive introduction of free education for the poor up to undergraduate level,” Nzimande said. This had been introduced in colleges.

He said a working group had been established “to determine the actual cost of introducing fee-free university education for the poor” and options for implementation. It will report by the end of June. Only means-tested poor students are eligible for NSFAS loans and bursaries, and presumably one option would be to discontinue loans and offer only bursaries.

Tuition fees account for around a quarter of the income of many South African universities. What worries vice-chancellors is that NSFAS loans and bursaries for disadvantaged students, along with per-student state subsidies, will not cover the costs of tuition and will result in declining quality.

Nzimande said that the Green Paper on Post School Education and Training, released in January, set out “a vision for a single, coherent, differentiated and articulated post-school education and training system” aimed at expanding access, overcoming inequalities and achieving excellence and innovation.

The major thrust of tertiary policy is developing the college sector to soak up soaring student demand and grow the production of skills the economy needs. Public consultation and stakeholder submissions on the green paper close tomorrow.


Nzimande said a ministerial committee reviewing university funding was to report by the end of August and a new funding framework would be introduced by April 2013.

A ministerial review of student accommodation had “highlighted an enormous shortage of student residences and the run-down condition of much of what exists”.

For the next two years R850 million has been earmarked for universities to build and refurbish residences, with 86% of the money allocated to historically black institutions. Since this is insufficient, the DHET has been negotiating to raise additional investment funding.

“Over the next two years, R3.8 billion has been earmarked for universities' overall infrastructure development, prioritising historically disadvantaged institutions,” Nzimande announced. Of this, R1.6 billion was specifically for historically disadvantaged institutions.

“On the academic front, my department is committed to increasing the production of graduates in engineering, the natural sciences, human and animal health sciences and teacher education,” he continued. The DHET is engaging with HESA and deans to “accelerate especially black and women graduate output in these areas”.

Following a DHET-commissioned study of the humanities and social sciences, “and to ensure that these important disciplines are not neglected”, a National Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences will be set up. An advisory panel on African languages had started its work.

A National Information and Application System to centralise university applications will be established, so that students do not have to apply separately to multiple universities, each with its own application fees. The new system would also centralise student loan and bursary applications.

In around three months' time, the minister said, he would announce details of two new universities in Mpumalanga and Northern Cape provinces, which currently do not have universities. The new institutions would begin enrolling students at the beginning of 2014.

The DHET is looking at ways to expand the training of doctors and other health professionals, including veterinarians, and has been negotiating with professional councils around producing sufficient graduates and providing them with work experience and support to become registered professionals.

“We want to eliminate all forms of gate-keeping in the production of professionals,” said Nzimande.

The minister said that within weeks he would announce members of a ministerial oversight committee on transformation, which would take forward recommendations on tackling racism and slow transformation in universities.

National Student Financial Aid Scheme

Another priority, said Nzimande, was to become more responsive to students – “even before they enrol at higher education institutions" – and around R98 million had been allocated to the NSFAS to develop state-of-the-art ICT infrastructure and systems.

Funds available to students grew from R2.4 billion in 2008 to R6 billion in 2011. NSFAS funds have been made available for special purposes including R50 million for postgraduate scholarships and R350 million for poor students who were unable to register due to outstanding debt and insufficient funding in 2012.

The vice-chancellors welcomed expansion of loans and bursaries, and urged the minister to implement recommendations of a ministerial review of the NSFAS and to explore using the National Skills Fund to address some of the sector’s funding challenges.

Teacher education

One priority is to strengthen teacher education in an effort to improve quality in schools, most of which offer sub-standard education that is dragging back development and the economy. Also, there are not enough qualified teachers.

Nzimande said R450 million had been ring-fenced over two years “to expand university infrastructure capacity for teacher education”. There had been a 15% increase in enrolments in initial teacher education programmes, from some 36,000 in 2009 to more than 41,000 in 2010, and a similar rise in teacher graduations to nearly 8,000.

To expand capacity to produce new teachers, three former teacher colleges – closed down several years ago when all teacher education was subsumed into universities – would be reopened, in Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape provinces, the minister said.

To support expansion of the college sector, “lecturer development will be a strong focus”. A qualifications policy for college lecturers would be gazetted and the DHET would ensure a range of qualification offerings were made available to lecturers.

An amount of R499 million has been allocated to all universities for teaching development grants to assist in improving graduate outputs, and R194 million for foundation programmes to improve the success rates of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In the coming financial year, programmes would also be launched to support the academic and professional development of university lecturers, the minister said. In addition, R177 million had been allocated to 15 universities to develop the research capability of staff, especially at institutions with low numbers of staff with masters and doctoral degrees.

Vice-chancellors’ response

HESA chair and Vice-chancellor of the Durban University of Technology Ahmed Bawa said that while some government departments were seeing reductions, the minister’s budget committed “to ongoing funding to enhance the capabilities and capacities of our public universities.

“These investments will go a long way towards preserving, at appropriate levels, the core missions of universities, thereby enabling them to build a stronger future for our society and economy.”

The vice-chancellors welcomed the extra funding to expand teacher education, for improved student residences, for overall infrastructure development prioritising disadvantaged institutions, and for special-purpose funding including postgraduate scholarships.

But they are concerned about the DHET’s growing list of priority initiatives, because of the “capacity and capability limitations” of Nzimande’s department. “The ministry stands a better chance of achieving its set objectives if it manages capability and demands,” they said.
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