Free higher education – President appeals for patience

President Jacob Zuma has appealed for patience while the national fees commission he set up to investigate the feasibility of fee-free higher education concludes its inquiry. The appeal follows the release last week of the commission’s interim report, criticised by the opposition Democratic Alliance as “a slap in the face” for students.

Speaking during a question and answer session in parliament on Wednesday, Zuma appealed for patience while the fees commission led by Judge Jonathan Heher concluded its inquiry.

Zuma has extended the deadline of the commission, established in January to investigate the feasibility of free higher education in South Africa, to 30 June 2017.

“We are appealing that the matter be considered. We should be patient. Wait and see what happens,” Zuma is reported to have told parliament. “There is not one view on the matter that you can just have free education just like that. There are other processes that are taking place, which once the commission has concluded its work, we will have to look at.”

The eight-page report was described by the opposition Democratic Alliance or DA as a “slap in the face” for students. DA shadow higher education minister Belinda Bozzoli criticised the document for containing no evidence of any consultation of experts and for repeating what was already widely known.

“The report essentially says that there is no money and lots of work needed. This we already know,” she said.

Stating the obvious

“The report, which the government claimed would provide much needed direction on the current crisis, lacks any firm commitments and leadership. It merely restates the obvious and only confirms the ANC-led government is utterly rudderless and without any clue as to how to fix their self-made crisis,” Bozolli said.

The unresolved issue of student fees has prompted country-wide student unrest this year under the banner of the #FeesMustFall movement, with major disruptions to the academic programmes of all public universities, including the rescheduling of lectures and end-of-year examinations.

While the interim report notes that the commission had not “arrived at a stage” at which it could “identify and evaluate all sources of funding which might be made available for tuition fees… infrastructure and staff costs”, it had taken note of and proposed to interrogate a number of issues in greater depth.

These included:
  • • Alternative proposals for provision of higher education and training through internet cafes erected in electoral districts;
  • • Unused or underutilised funds deriving from various statutory and private obligations to contribute;
  • • A range of taxation proposals;
  • • More fruitful participation of the private sector including corporates, banks, industry and BBBEE [Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment] schemes;
  • • Prospective savings in relation to wasteful government expenditure;
  • • The role of providers of private higher education;
  • • The possibility of establishing a community or co-operative education bank;
  • • A voucher system for access to higher education facilities.
The interim report was prepared after only three of the proposed eight sets into which the commission has divided its work have been completed. The commission was established in January 2016 to investigate the feasibility of free higher education in South Africa.

The three sets covered by the interim report include: an overview by stakeholders of the terms of reference of the commission, post-school education and training in South Africa and the funding of institutions of higher education and understanding their operational costs.

Still to be investigated are: the nature, accessibility and effectiveness of student funding by government, the private sector and foreign aid; the meaning and content of ‘fee-free’ higher education and training; alternative sources of funding; the social, economic and financial implications of fee-free higher education and training; and the feasibility of providing fee-free higher education and training and the extent of such provision.

According to the report, the commission has received over 200 written submissions and has listened to over 50 oral representations from government, NGOs, individuals, private education providers, universities and colleges.

Poor private sector participation

“There has been regrettably little participation by the resource-rich entities such as corporates, industry, the banking sector or organised labour, all of which might have been expected to contribute as the production of graduates and an academically prepared workforce is to their direct benefit,” the report said.

On the issue of student participation, it said: “While a few students and student bodies have been prepared to engage with the commission, the great majority have either declined to do so or, in some instances, conducted themselves in an aggressive and anarchic fashion towards the commission and its work. However this has not resulted in any material disruption or delay.”

In its conclusion, the report notes that while the commission was not asked to address the “immediate problem” of the Fees Must Fall agitation, it notes that the interim measures taken by government to address the crisis “accord with the majority views of witnesses before us…”

In October, Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan announced during his mid-term budget speech that an additional R17 billion (US$1.2 billion) would be allocated to students and universities over the next three years to help address the funding crisis.