South Africa

#FeesHaveFallen but uncertainty casts doubt on universities

By Greg Nicolson 9 January 2018

University stakeholders were in last-minute discussions on Monday to ensure the academic year begins without interruption. The sustainability of President Jacob Zuma's announcement on free education remains in question and political parties took full advantage of the uncertainty. By GREG NICOLSON.

Whether the university academic year begins on time or not depends on the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFFSC), but the opposition party’s student organisation had not yet clarified its position on Monday evening after a meeting with government officials.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have called on late applicants to descend on campuses en masse to register to study at universities this year, after Zuma recently announced a free higher education policy for the country’s poor and middle-class. This was criticised as opportunism, and the party claims the policy means applicants who did not register due to financial constraints should now be allowed onto campuses despite many institutions barring walk-in applicants.

South Africa’s 26 public institutions, represented by Universities South Africa (USAf), on Monday agreed to allow late applicants onto campuses to attempt to register to study in 2018. Qualifying students will be assisted in accessing the Central Applications Clearing House (Cash) service, which provides up-to-date information on available tertiary courses across the country.

Students won’t be asked to leave campus,” said USAf CEO Professor Ahmed Bawa, after a meeting with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

Universities and the department have discouraged late applicants from applying in person since Gloria Sekwena was killed in a stampede at the University of Johannesburg in 2012, while accompanying her son to apply to study at the university. Bawa said it would be “problematic” if “thousands and thousands” of aspiring students now arrive on campuses, but institutions will deal with any influx of students.

The universities will do the best they can to facilitate students accessing places at universities,” said Bawa. He did not know how many people might not have applied to further their studies due to financial constraints who could now afford university under Zuma’s free higher education policy, announced in December on the first morning of the ANC’s national conference.

In the Sunday Times, EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi elaborated on party leader Julius Malema’s call for all those who previously couldn’t afford fees to show up at universities to register. He said the EFF understood there were limited spaces, but those who want to apply in person should still be considered.

On Zuma’s announcement, he said, “If we accept that such a call mostly affects those individuals who had given up hope of applying due to lack of funds, then consideration of late applications is meant precisely to accommodate this group, surely?”

The universities’ concessions on Monday will allow such students to apply, but spaces available for late registrations are extremely limited and successful applicants may not receive an offer from the institution of their choice. DHET has assured universities it won’t pressure them to dramatically increase enrollments, Bawa said.

While university students have been protesting for decades, the #FeesMustFall demonstrations of 2015 and 2016 turned sporadic disruptions into a national movement and placed students at the centre of the country’s politics.

Zuma’s unexpected announcement on free education was welcomed in some quarters, but he provided no details of how his plan would be implemented, leading to concerns over the sustainability of the plan. It could lead to a new round of protests as political parties either use it to gain an advantage over the ANC or students fight to ensure it is implemented.

Bawa said the plan’s long-term viability was not discussed on Monday but would be a focus of meetings throughout the year. “It is an uncertain space. I think we all have to agree with that,” he said. “The universities are now dead set on understanding how best to roll it out.”

The policy will be implemented over five years and raise the household income threshold for financial assistance from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) from R122,000 to R350,000 for first-year students and those who enter the system in future years. Instead of loans, students will now receive bursaries. The R122,000 threshold will continue to apply for students already in the system who receive NSFAS support, but thier loans will be converted into bursaries.

Government has provided no information on how the policy will be funded Higher Education and Training Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize last week failed to explain how much the policy would cost or where the funds would come from.

Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba is leading government efforts, but officials have been tight-lipped on how the policy can be accommodated without significant budgetary reductions in other departments or further borrowing.

Democratic Alliance (DA) higher education shadow minister Belinda Bozzoli has requested Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education and training to urgently meet and summon Mkhize, as well as the ministers of finance and police, to explain their financial plans.

In the absence of clear and detailed plans to address the funding for poor and middle-class students, the public will conclude that the ANC and the government are playing political games with the hopes and dreams of our most precious asset – the youth of South Africa,” she said.

Former higher education minister and South African Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande this weekend asked about the feasibility of the plan: “Can we afford free higher education, as announced on the 16th of December, and at the same time have a nuclear deal? Can we do these things? Where is this money going to come from?”

Committee chairperson Connie September issued a statement on Monday welcoming the policy shift, which includes increasing higher education spending to 1% of gross domestic product, and said DHET and relevant institutions should brief Parliament on potential legislative changes required to implement the plan.

Economist Xhanti Payi said there doesn’t appear to be a plan to fund the policy. “I think this is the biggest problem, that we have no plan.” He said while government faced a revenue shortfall of over R50 billion, it has committed to expensive policies such as national health insurance, nuclear energy, and rescuing failing state-owned entities like Eskom.

I don’t know where he’s going to find all that money in that environment and put together a credible plan,” Payi said on Gigaba’s task. While South Africa could face another downgrade from credit rating agencies, he said the ANC has little choice but to implement its policy ahead of the 2019 elections, where the youth will could play a deciding role. “It would be foolish for them not to find the money in whatever way to appease students.”

The timing of Zuma’s announcement was criticised as an attempt to influence the results of the ANC’s elective congress in favour of his preferred successor Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who lost the party leadership race to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Others claim his unexpected announcement, which contradicted a commission of inquiry’s findings into the matter, was an attempt to influence his legacy and boost the ANC’s chances come 2019.

The EFF has also been accused of being opportunistic. Avela Mjajubana, president of ANC alliance partner, the South African Students Congress (Sasco), said Malema “in a bid to cause chaos and gain political points” wanted to disrupt the beginning of the academic year.

South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) spokesperson Jabu Mahlungu, also part of the alliance, added his condemnation. “Irresponsible calls by the EFF for prospective students to undermine online registration processes for university admission are aimed at undermining the great strides made towards the phasing in of free education for the poor,” he said on Monday.

The National Youth Development Agency (NYDA), whose leadership has been defined by ANC deployments, attacked both the EFF and conservatives who have questioned Zuma’s policy. “We will viciously attack those who continue to undermine and question the provision of free education in this country, we declare here for everybody to know,” said the organisation in a statement.

Political analyst Somadoda Fikeni said for a number of years student politics had been subsumed by the ambitions of adults who lead affiliated political parties. “They see the youth as the main constituency going forward,” he said.

On the EFF, Fikeni said it might want to highlight the divisions between Zuma, his government, as well as the new ANC leadership, and cast doubt on the ANC by showing how unready it was to implement the president’s policy. “They may also want to milk the very last out of the political capital that Zuma has been bringing them.”

As leaders of the country’s political parties fight over the issues, universities and students could become pawns in a larger game. No disruptions have yet been reported at tertiary registrations, but the EFF has shown it’s ready to shut down campuses.

Its opposition at university level, Sasco, is also ready to take action. Mjajubana said his organisation was ready to guard the policy’s implementation and has instructed members to be ready to protest if the government fails to honour its commitments or opposition parties stand in the way. DM

Photo: Police forces stand guard after running battles with students on the Wits University campus as ongoing protests continue against the cost of higher education in Johannesburg, South Africa, 04 October 2016. EPA/CORNELL TUKIRI.

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