SOUTH AFRICA: Free university for the poor proposed

Free higher education for poor South African students and the scrapping of race in favour of class as a mechanism to identify those in need of financial assistance could be on the cards if recent media reports based on a leaked version of a ministerial review of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, NSFAS, are to be believed.

Due to be released for public comment on Tuesday, 16 March, after being presented to cabinet over two weeks ago, the report is the product of a ministerial review committee formally established by Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande last June.

Under the chairmanship of Professor Marcus Balintulo, the committee was asked to look into "strengths and shortcomings" of the current scheme and to advise the minister on how to enhance its functioning.

According to a report in last week's Sunday Independent, the review allegedly recommends that the government draw up a policy that "progressively provides free higher education to undergraduate level students from poor and working-class communities" and that students from lower-middle-income families should be provided "student loans on favourable terms."

Other recommendations reported to emanate from the leaked document, and published in a range of papers owned by the Independent Newspapers group, include a proposal that all students receive the same amount from the fund - about R32,000 (US$4,300) a year - regardless of where they are studying, that universities be forced to accept more students and provide academic support to all those funded by the scheme.

The panel also reportedly recommends that the board of the NSFAS - accused of creating a "revolving door of poverty" as students drop out and face substantial loan repayments - steps aside to make way for a "turnaround team".

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme is a statutory body established in 1996 to ensure that poor students with academic ability can access higher education. It administers and allocates loans and bursaries to eligible students at both universities and further education and training colleges - more than 120,000 awards a year - and also raises funds and recovers loans.

The 13-member NSFAS board is appointed by the Minister of Higher Education and Training. The scheme is currently under the leadership of CEO Ashley Seymour who took the helm only last month. The fund is reported to be owed about R10 billion in loans and has gone through five CEOs in 10 years.

Last year, the NSFAS came under fire for under-spending despite the ministry's claim that "demands on the scheme continue to exceed available resources". Following a joint report in August by the parliamentary portfolio committees on basic and higher education and training, it emerged that R89.3 million in 2007 and R95.5 million in 2008 were unspent by universities and colleges.

According to news reports, the fund was allocated R2.1 billion in this financial year, which will rise to R2.7 billion next year.

Reports about the leaked document emerged in the same week that students led by the national South African Students' Congress staged protests against high university tuition fees and financial exclusions at several institutions.

Both Nzimande and his director-general Mary Metcalfe criticised the leak, and have insisted on adherence to the planned consultation process.

Metcalfe questioned the credibility of the media reports which she said were based on "copies of working documents". She said one report had incorrectly represented a stakeholder's submission to the committee - alleging management problems at the NSFAS - as part of the review's findings.

Other recommendations said to be contained in the leaked review are that blacklisted loan beneficiaries be removed from credit bureau blacklists and that the "discriminatory" race-based formula currently used by the scheme should be scrapped owing to the "emergence of a black middle and upper class and the spreading of seriously low levels of poverty among white students".

Commentators and stakeholders predictably have been cautious about commenting on the leaked recommendations ahead of their public release. The official opposition party's shadow minister for education Dr Wilmot James also declined on the grounds that the report was "not in the public domain".

"What I can say is that the Democratic Alliance supports the principle of government providing bursaries to deserving students on the basis of their academic ability", James told University World News. He said there was no such thing as "free education" because "somebody had to pay" for it.

According to the NSFAS website, the fund has worked in the context of enormous backlogs in access to higher education for historically marginalised communities, requests from institutions for increased financial contributions, high expectations around access to higher education and conflict between students and institutional administrations over fee payment.