Student fees versus transformation at HE summit

The transformation of universities has become a burning issue in South Africa, but is real change possible without adequate student funding? If discussions at the Second National Higher Education Summit held in the coastal city of Durban last week are any indication, it seems unlikely.

Co-hosted by the Durban University of Technology, the aim of the three-day national summit was ostensibly to bring stakeholders together for a “critical dialogue” on the higher education system and future goals, and to reflect on changes in institutions and the system since the first summit in 2010.

However, the issue of student funding occupied centre-stage at the summit, with student representatives pushing on all available platforms – including the streets outside the International Conference Centre, or ICC, where a demonstration was held on the first day – for free higher education for poor students.

This, as students at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg continued protesting over above-inflation fee increases of 10.5% for 2016, and in the wake of recent violent protests at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which saw the torching of university buildings.

The summit also took place against the backdrop of recent student mobilisation over racial discrimination and lack of transformation at the historically advantaged universities of Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Rhodes.

All about the money

Inside the ICC, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande called for fiscal realism and recognition of the considerable gains of his department and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, government’s main instrument for financing poor students.

Nzimande said the NSFAS had supported a total of 1.5 million students since 1994 and had contributed considerably to the growth of the black African middle-class.

Tainted by allegations of corruption, the scheme is now hoping for a cleaner image under the new chairmanship of former FirstRand banking group chief Sizwe Nxasana.

A chartered accountant by training, Nxasana matter-of-factly told the summit that only R248 million (US$19 million) out of R6 billion in loans had been recovered from students in the last financial year.

Further, donations from the private sector to NSFAS coffers currently amounted to “zero” as a result of the corruption scandals, leaving the scheme to depend solely on government funding – currently sitting at just under R10 billion.

The need to attract additional donors was thus a priority for NSFAS if it was to assist in the transformation agenda, said Nxasana.

If it’s tough being tasked with turning around the NSFAS and having to bear the burden of millions of aspirant youngsters, spare a thought for South African vice-chancellors – accused by protesting students of turning their backs on poor students, and instructed by the ministry to identify the ‘cost-drivers’ pushing up the cost of higher education.

Who should take ultimate responsibility for the funding shortfall is not clear, with both universities and the ministry in a kind of stand-off on the issue during the summit.

The cost-sharing model

In terms of the national cost-sharing model, state funding currently contributes on average 40% to universities’ income.

In real terms, subsidies are in decline, and the state budget for universities in 2015-16 – at 0.72% of gross domestic product – is low relative to both continental (0.78% in 2011) and international (0.84%) trends – a fact acknowledged by the ministry.

This is despite education being an “apex priority” of the South African government, according to South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa who opened the summit.

Nzimande was forced to tread a fine line when asked by the media if fee increases were not simply a direct result of low government funding. Inflation-linked fee increases were inevitable, he said. But rises that were almost double the inflation rate were questionable.

He said a recent meeting of the ruling African National Congress party’s national general council had indicated support for the regulation of student fees and the mechanism – as a transparent and rational option for increasing fees – was being investigated by his department.

Where that will leave public universities, which are expected to increase their intake of poor black students as a major component of the transformation agenda, is not clear.

The university view

Speaking on behalf of universities body Universities South Africa, Vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Derrick Swartz said that in principle vice-chancellors were not in support of universities leaning on student fees to support university functions.

“Raising fees is increasingly being turned to as a mechanism for raising institutional income, but none of the vice-chancellors I speak to believe it is right. But how are we [otherwise] to deliver on our mandate?” he asked.

Describing it as an “urgent political issue” involving all higher education stakeholders and not just universities, Swartz told delegates it was not possible to have a “satisfactory discussion” of the problem of rising fees which was “abstracted from, or outside of, a discussion on [government] subsidy funding”.

One of the few proposed solutions emanating from the discussions came from the Economic Freedom Fighters party’s student command, whose president Mpho Morolane called for a wealth tax on both individuals and corporates.

The transformation debate

While funding remained a hot topic, the transformation debate is much broader, incorporating the issues that have given rise to expressions of student frustration most recently at historically advantaged institutions, and which were reflected in the four central themes of the summit: institutional environments; access and success; research and engagement; and leadership, management and governance.

While the ministry has repeatedly signalled its intention to deal with the lack of transformation at some institutions, it emerged in a presentation made by former chair of the South African Qualifications Authority Professor Shirley Walters that the Ministerial Oversight Committee on Transformation in South African Public Universities set up by Nzimande in 2013 to advise government on strategies to combat discrimination at institutions, initially struggled with under-resourcing.

“Even trying to see the minister was difficult,” she said. The unit has since been allocated a budget and is now more embedded within the department.

Among the outcomes arising at its conclusion on Saturday, particularly given the past year of student action, were likely to be commitments to speed up the pace of transformation, a term which broadly captures the need to adapt universities to the new post-apartheid, democratic dispensation, but which still prompts repeated calls for a more precise definition.

While Nzimande rejected the more radical term of ‘decolonisation’ as a more suitable alternative to capture the changes needed in South African higher education, many of the summit’s speakers, particularly students, chose to use it in reference to the thoroughgoing changes they seek in such areas as curriculum development and institutional culture.

However it is defined, the need for transformation in the sector is clear and what is a multi-faceted issue is likely to be on the agenda, as Ramaphosa noted in his opening address, “for a number of years”.