Universities announce maximum fee hikes for 2017

In a move likely to set university management structures on a collision course with student protesters calling for free higher education, at least seven universities have made public their plans to increase fees in 2017.

The latest announcements of an 8% hike in tuition and residence fees – the maximum increase recommended by the Department of Higher Education and Training – came last week from the universities of Zululand, Rhodes, Johannesburg, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, and the University of the Witwatersrand. The University of Cape Town was expected to make a decision over the weekend.

The announcements come in the wake of a tumultuous year for the country’s higher education institutions which have endured sustained and disruptive student unrest over the issue of free higher education.

The fee increases announced over the past two weeks apply only to those students with a family income of more than R600,000 (US$43,500) per annum. Over and above supporting students from poor students whose families earn less than R120,000 (US$8,700) per annum through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, the state has also committed to funding the increase for all students with a family income of less than R600,000 – the so-called ‘missing middle’.

Financial sustainability

Most universities implementing increases claimed they were needed to ensure “long-term financial sustainability”.

Professor Nicky Morgan, acting vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State, or UFS, said in a statement the university management was aware of the economic realities in South Africa and the financial impact on households.

“The long-term financial sustainability of UFS, as well as the financial constraints which impact teaching and learning, research, and community service, continue to remain of utmost importance to the council,” he said.

Morgan said the average fees per programme at UFS are in almost all instances the lowest when measured against the fees of comparable universities.

Student anger

The UFS announcement followed the decision earlier this week by the University of the Witwatersrand or Wits to raise its fees, also by 8%.

The announcement quickly drew condemnation from students, with many expressing their frustration via social media over what they perceived as the failure of widespread student protest action to sway university decision-makers. There was also criticism of the timing of the announcements which came after examinations and while students were on vacation.

An official statement by the Wits Student Representative Council said it hoped that the university would have recognised the need to “rebuild a very broken and disunited institution, using a 0% pronouncement as a starting point”.

“The university has come out on many occasions to claim to support the call for free, quality and decolonised education. It seems extremely disingenuous then for them to make a decision that goes against the very core of this principle. It is also very problematic and strategic that they choose to announce this decision at a time when the student population is demobilised due to it being December and just after the exam period,” the statement said.

In a filmed news interview with Times Live, Wits student activist Mcebo Dlamini said students would “react” and “respond with the anger that this insult deserves”.

Wits SRC Secretary-General David Manabile was quoted by the Citizen as saying, “Unrests could occur during registration processes next year”.

‘No choice’

In a statement, Wits senior executives said the university had ‘no choice’ but to increase fees if it was to remain financially sustainable.

“Academics and professional and administrative staff need to be remunerated, books and journals need to be purchased (many in foreign currency), utilities need to be paid and infrastructure needs to be maintained. In addition, the university will accommodate the costs of [worker] insourcing and the new ICT renewal project from 2017.”

Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said the Department of Higher Education and Training had paid the university about R54 million less than the R146 million promised to it by the state as compensation for the 0% increase for the 2016 academic year.

“However, we have been recently informed that the 2016 fee increase will now be rolled into the subsidy, the net effect of which is that our subsidy increase for 2017 will be only 2.5%. This equates to a net decline in income of approximately R54 million for 2017 from the state,” noted a statement from the Wits Senior Executive team.

Among the first to officially announce its increase was Stellenbosch University. Unlike its counterparts, Stellenbosch University has increased accommodation fees by 10%, while tuition fees increase by no more than 8% in accordance with the ceiling recommended by the ministry.

The 10% increase in accommodation fees was necessitated by the university’s decision to follow a policy of “viable sourcing” after protest action in 2015, according to a statement, the university council said in a statement.

“The university is providing top-up funding to outsourced workers to ensure that their cost-to-company remuneration amounts to R5,000 per month, exactly the same as university staff members on the same post level,” the council said.

No fee increases

Tshwane University of Technology and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology are among those institutions that have announced no fee increases for 2017. Because only a small proportion of the students at these institutions are self-funded, the majority already benefit from existing NSFAS funding and other bursaries.

In its own statement, the University of Zululand said it was anticipated that because over 94% of students entering the university for the first time in 2016 were eligible for NSFAS support (students with a family income of less than R120,000 per annum), virtually all students would pay no higher fees in 2017 than they did in 2015 and 2016. “In addition, initial payments for registration in 2017 will remain at the reduced levels of 2016,” the statement said.

Help for the ‘missing middle’

Late last month, the Department of Higher Education and Training announced the rollout of the new Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme or ISFAP, which aims to fund students whose annual family income is lower than or equal to R600,000, but who fail to qualify for NSFAS assistance. Students will receive funding structured as a mix of grants, loans and family contributions. Academic and psycho-social support is also built into the pilot model.

The ISFAP pilot project will be implemented at various universities and one TVET – technical vocational education and training – college in 2017. The pilot will run parallel to a feasibility study in line with National Treasury regulations.

Envisaged as a public-private partnership, the pilot will target R200 million for approximately 2,000 students studying towards scarce skills professions, according to a statement from the Department of Higher Education and Training.