Zuma releases long-awaited fees commission report

The long-awaited Heher Commission report into the feasibility of fee-free higher education and training has finally been released to the public by President Jacob Zuma, although South Africa still awaits Zuma’s pronouncement on its contents.

The report found that fee-free higher education is not feasible. It recommended, inter alia, that the current National Student Financial Aid Scheme be replaced by an income contingency loan scheme, that the government raise its expenditure on higher education and training to at least 1% of gross domestic product or GDP, and that fee-free education be available at technical and vocational education and training or TVET colleges.

The report was leaked to the media at the end of October in the wake of growing frustration at the president’s tardiness in releasing the report which was delivered to him at the end of August.

On Sunday 12 November, the South African presidency issued a statement which rubbished news reports that Zuma was planning to announce free education in the state of the nation address in February this year but was stopped by the National Treasury.

Describing the Sunday Times report as a “fabrication”, the presidency’s statement said Zuma “never planned to make such an announcement”.

According to the newspaper, Zuma had intended to announce free education as early as February but was blocked by treasury officials who intervened by removing the free education announcement in Zuma’s state of the nation address. This was during the tenure of former finance minister Pravin Gordhan.

R40 billion fee-free education plan

Last week, in another surprising development, it was reported by local newspaper TimesLive that Zuma was planning to announce free education across the board through a controversial funding plan that would involve cutting back departmental budgets across government to make R40 billion available for the 2018 academic year for students coming from families earning a combined annual income of not more than R350,000.

The resignation of deputy director-general in the Treasury's budget office Michael Sachs last week is reportedly connected to unhappiness over Zuma’s ambitious education plan, according to online financial news outlet Moneyweb.

According to the City Press, Zuma’s fee-free plan is looking at redirecting of funds from underspending programmes; conducting a 5% “shave” across the board on all programmes; and pushing some infrastructure projects that can be delayed into “the outer years”.

The City Press also reported that the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, which has funded more than 400 PhD students in three years, 45 of whom graduated last week, has had its budget cut by R35.6 million.

When Zuma will make a pronouncement on the report remains unclear.

In Monday’s statement, Zuma said the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Higher Education Funding led by the Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, and the Presidential Fiscal Committee whose lead minister is the Minister of Finance, Malusi Gigaba, are still processing the report.

“I will make a pronouncement on the report once the ministers have concluded their work. I have decided to release the report prior to the conclusion of our work in processing it so that the public can have an opportunity to study the report while we continue with the processing thereof,” he said in the statement.


While the official release of the report has been welcomed, Zuma’s response to the report is still awaited.

While it welcomed the release of the report, Universities South Africa expressed concern around the timing of its release, which comes in the midst of end-of-year examinations. "We are anxiously awaiting further communications from the president’s office regarding both process and decision points," it said in a statement.

Universities South Africa said it supports the singling out of the TVET sector for substantial investment and said the recommendation of pegging the subsidy funding of the state to universities at 1% of GDP will make a major difference to the current situation of underfunding in the sector. It said it supports the proposal around tax concessions in favour of the private sector investing in university infrastructure.

On the issue of income-contingent loans for university students it said, while there were several societies using the income-contingent loan model effectively, the key issue is "whether it will leave students highly indebted or not and this will require further analysis".

The opposition Democratic Alliance, or DA, said it welcomed the “professionalism and richness of the report” but called on the president to indicate whether or not the report will form the basis of the ANC government’s new funding model for higher education.

“Bizarre rumours have been swirling that President Zuma is intending to bypass this multi-million rand report in favour of an amateur, populist funding model that entails the crude introduction of a R40 billion boost to student funding, to be financed through such drastic measures as the undermining of the role of Treasury, the possible cutting of social grants and an increase in VAT, with little consideration given to all the other issues at stake,” the DA said in a statement.

“Ordinarily, these rumours could be dismissed with the contempt they deserve, but we have seen, time and time again, that President Zuma will put his own interests above the best interests of South Africans. If he sees it as being in his interests to give priority to a populist and unsustainable proposal, over a taxpayer-funded, professionally produced commission, he might well do so. This is a chilling possibility.”

The Higher Education Transformation Network, or HETN, also welcomed the release of the report but said it awaits the final implementation mechanisms to be announced by the state.

The HETN called on all higher education managers and councils and their representative body (Universities South Africa) to “follow the policy pronouncement by the state and desist from unilaterally raising fees for the academic year of 2018 outside state policy guidance”.