South Africa

South Africa

Analysis: Nzimande’s offer to cover the poor tests students’ resolve on free education

Making a recommendation on university fee increases, Minister Blade Nzimande was faced with competing demands. He took the middle ground, deciding the state would pay for poor and middle class students’ fee hikes while letting the wealthy pay. Some students have already started protesting. Whether it spreads nationwide will depend on whether students accept the piecemeal appeasement or want to make a point for free education, now. By GREG NICOLSON.

In making his announcement on Monday, Blade Nzimande said the plan will mean 70% to 80% of  undergraduate students across the country will either be covered by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) or face no fee increases next year. Those who now protest for zero-percent fee increases for all students are protecting the rich, he said.

“We can’t destroy our universities in the name of defending no-fee increases for the rich,” said Nzimande, while acknowledging students’ right to demonstrate. The Department of Higher Education and Training’s plan was a first of its kind, said Nzimande. He encouraged students to acknowledge the country’s inequalities and government’s limited resources and allow those with means to pay fee increases in 2017.

“I am sure that the students cannot position themselves to be fighting for wealthy parents,” said Nzimande. “Don’t be misled,” he warned students of protesters he claimed have “their own narrow political agenda”.

At some campuses, it appears Nzimande’s announcement has not been well received. The department’s decision came amid competing demands from students and universities. Nzimande could have continued the 2015 decision for government to pay for all fee increases, while risking the state fiscus and financial sustainability of universities. Or he could have encouraged institutions to keep their fee hikes low but allowed them to pass on the financial burden to students, which would have risked large-scale protests.

The minister found a balance. He said the reality of inflation means costs for higher education are rising and performance will suffer unless institutions are able to match the increased costs.

“Starving our universities of funding is not the way to go, which is effectively what another across-the-board fee rise moratorium against the current fiscal backdrop would mean at this point,” said Nzimande, addressing the media in Pretoria.

“Government is alive to the legitimate cries of students regarding fees and to those of the universities who must continue to pay for specialist books and equipment in foreign currency and ensure that academic, support and service staff are adequately paid for their work,” he continued.

The department can only make recommendations to institutions’ councils on fee increases and Nzimande said adjustments should be no higher than 8%, which accounts for inflation plus 2%. To ensure the poor, working and middle-class families are not excluded from the fee increases, government will pay for fee increases up to 8% for students on NSFAS and the “missing middle”, those with a household income of up to R600,000 per annum.

“This will in effect mean that all NSFAS qualifying students, as well as the so-called ‘missing middle’’ – that is, students whose families earn above the NSFAS threshold but who are unable to support their children to access higher education, will experience no fee increases in 2017,” said the minister. The figure of R600,000 was determined in consultation with the task team looking at the missing middle and information from Statistics SA. Nzimande said, “This seems to be a figure that you’re actually going to cover, if not all, a substantial component of the missing middle.”

The “gap-funding grant” will cover both university and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges and administrative mechanisms will be developed before the end of the academic year for students to apply. The department said between 70% and 80% of undergraduate students across the country are expected to be covered, at an estimated cost of R2.5-billion. That’s less than what was spent on covering all fee increases this year. Students from wealthier backgrounds will have to pay fee increases and Nzimande said a problem with 2016’s blanket no-fee increase, announced by President Jacob Zuma last year, was that government had to pay for rich students and those on corporate bursaries who could afford to pay more.

The department’s 8% recommendation is not mandatory and institutions can set their own fee increases. The minister and some university officials, however, have suggested there is consensus that they will raise fees according to the recommendation. If an institution chooses to implement a higher increase, it could lead to further protests as students will have to cover the difference.

It’s still unclear how government will pay for its gap-funding grant. “As to where and how the money will come from, unfortunately I’m not the minister of finance,” said Nzimande, inviting uncertainty over how government will fund the programme.

In August, Treasury said it had not budgeted to cover another round of no-fee increases but was ready to respond if the policy changed. Treasury’s spokesperson was not immediately available for comment, but Nzimande said he hopes Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan will address the issue in his October medium-term budget speech. The decision could raise concern among investors and ratings agencies that the ANC government is implementing costly, populist policies after its poor showing in the recent elections.

The Democratic Alliance said Nzimande’s announcement raises “more questions than answers”.

“Making such an announcement, without a commitment from the Treasury, verges on the irresponsible. Besides this glaring gap in the announcement, Minister Nzimande provided us with no assurance that the higher education sector would not again have to pay for all or a part of the additional support to students,” said the DA’s Belinda Bozzoli.

Nzimande’s decision comes after the ANC national executive committee announced last month after discussing the election results that it supported a no-fee increase while discussions continue on the future of funding higher education. Shortly after the announcement, reports claimed President Zuma had told Nzimande and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to figure out how to fund another zero-percent increase. The Council of Higher Education had advised Nzimande to recommend institutions implement inflation-linked increases of 8% and said they should impose the same increase across the country.

There was significant criticism on the possibility government would once again cover fee increases. Former University of Free State vice-chancellor and rector Jonathan Jansen, who stepped down in August, said last year’s decision locked the tertiary system into a downward spiral.

“Another zero-percent fee increase, regardless of politics, will destroy our universities. You can build up a good university over 100 years, but you can destroy one in three months,” he said. “At the end of the day, your ability to have universities that are of a high quality depends on what you do with your money.”

Despite Nzimande suggesting the department had found the best possible solution, some campuses did not welcome the policy. Students at the University of Witwatersrand immediately demonstrated. Students at the University of Free State held a public meeting after the announcement, which appeared to be unfavourable. The University of Cape Town, which was closed on Monday after students protested last week over continuing issues, saw students also hold a mass meeting on Monday. Students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal have already protested recently against fee increases, demanding free education, leading to violence from students, security and police.

Before Nzimande’s address, the Wits SRC said it would not accept just a freeze on fees. Zuma has established a commission of inquiry to assess the feasibility of free tertiary education in South Africa, which many of the student groups have participated in.

“We are tired of talk shops and task teams without implementation. We reject them in their entirety,” said the Wits SRC, demanding free education. “We cannot every year protest for a moratorium, there needs to be a greater structural solution to the crisis that is higher education. Merely freezing fees every year is not opening up access. We could not afford the fees in 2015, and we still can’t afford them today, thus the call for free, quality and equal education.”

Universities SA CEO Professor Ahmed Bawa welcomed Nzimande’s announcement. He said while an answer to tertiary costs is looked at in the long term, in the short term it will ensure the most at-risk students access higher education. The ongoing spending increases towards NSFAS, which Nzimande cited, will help academically deserving students access education, he said. He also congratulated the minister for recognising the Higher Education Price Index, which is higher than the consumer price index and explains why Nzimande suggested fees should rise by 2% above inflation. Universities SA represents 26 public universities.

“We call on student leaders, academic and support staff, vice-chancellors and university executives and university chairs of council to work together to ensure that the academic year is not jeopardised,” said Bawa.

In his announcement, Nzimande emphasised that the response came as the presidential commission was looking into the possibility of free tertiary education and while a task team was investigating the plight of the missing middle. He also noted that universities must continue their process of transformation.

Despite Nzimande’s claim that government will devote R2.5-billion to help students pay fee increases and his promise that a long-term solution is in the works, it’s unlikely to stop student protests. Student groups are determined to see clear steps towards achieving free tertiary education. Campuses also feature different groups competing for power and ready to assert their demands. It’s important to remember that Zuma’s announcement that government would cover 2016 fee increases did not end protests last year.

The campus protests will continue, but their level of disruption will depend on how moderate students respond to Nzimande’s announcement. Last year’s protests saw campuses shut across the country because they drew wide support from students and university staff. Students’ response to this year’s attempt to pre-empt wide-scale protest will determine how deep the call for free education, as opposed to temporary interventions, commissions, and task teams, runs. DM

Photo: Minister Blade Nzimande delivering his SoNA speech Debate in parliament. 18/02/2015, Siyasanga Mbambani, DoC

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