Fees fiasco threatens future of top African universities

South Africa’s battle over tuition fees is far from over, generating instability across the sector and simmering student protests. Last week the government revealed that 16 out of 26 (62%) public institutions – including Africa’s top universities – could face financial distress if fees do not rise, and could have a nearly R4 billion (US$279 million) funding shortfall for 2017-18.

A response by Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande in parliament to questions by Professor Belinda Bozzoli, MP and opposition Democratic Alliance shadow minister of higher education and training, showed that the financial crisis faced by universities across the country could be staggering.

Nzimande said a modelling exercise conducted by the Council on Higher Education projected that 16 universities would have had deficits in 2017-18 and ranked the distressed universities in order of deficit from the most affected: Walter Sisulu University, University of Limpopo, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of the Witwatersrand, Tshwane University of Technology and Rhodes University.

Others are the University of Fort Hare, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Central University of Technology, Vaal University of Technology, University of Cape Town, University of the Western Cape, Mangosuthu University of Technology, North-West University, University of Johannesburg and University of Venda.

Latest on fees

Bozzoli’s question came as university students await Nzimande's announcement on whether there would be a fees increase next year.

While the minister has already commented that a zero fee increase for next year would cripple universities, the ministry faces further pressure after the national executive committee of the ruling African National Congress party or ANC took a decision recently to recommend a fee freeze for 2017.

Nzimande, the vice-chancellor body Universities South Africa or USAf, and the University Council Chairs Forum have agreed to create a multi-stakeholder forum to find, by the end of August, a joint approach on how to fully fund an increase of 8%.

According to a statement by USAf, 8% represented the minimum increase required to avoid compromising the financial health of as many as 17 universities in the sector in 2017. The statement suggests that the increase could come from various sources including the state subsidy, private funding and student fees.

Bozzoli said the Democratic Alliance had identified R2.73 billion (US$190 million) in the 2016-17 budget which could have been transferred to assist poor students and provide universities enough subsidies to pay the bills.

But the ANC had rejected these proposals.

Uphill battle

This contributed to the dire financial position universities were now facing, which had been building for two decades due to protracted underfunding of the university sector.

“Our universities have been facing an uphill financial battle with no end to this crisis in sight as the minister of higher education and training tinkers with policy solutions to mitigate this impeding destruction of our university sector, which will leave students in a worse off position than they are already in," Bozzoli said.

Bozzoli said chronic financial neglect by the ANC government now threatened the institutions responsible for creating new generations of skilled labour.

“The financial crisis at universities has a massive impact on the poorest of students, putting their futures at risk. It will also have far-reaching knock-on implications for our economy as essential research produced at universities is put under pressure,” she added.