Opinionista Floyd Shivambu 22 October 2015

The Crisis in higher education is a crisis of political leadership

The student protests around the country give us cause to reflect on the politics behind the higher education funding crisis in South Africa. Those at the forefront of the student protests correctly proclaim that the #FeesMustFall campaign is not a party political programme, but a consolidated student movement that cuts across racial, political and class lines. Students with affiliations to different political parties are at the forefront of the protests, and the demands are centred on securing no fee increases for the academic year 2016, and variety of genuine worker demands.

Directing the protests to Parliament, and demanding that Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, be held accountable is reveals the political crisis at the centre of the student protests. Students have recognised that the political elite are responsible for the funding crisis. In particular, it is a clear statement that the Minister of Higher Education, has failed to provide direction on the question of higher education, in general, and student funding in particular. This is despite the calls and demands by successive student generations over the years that funding should be addressed in meaningful ways. Let us pause to reflect on these matters.

The Ministerial leadership on higher education, or lack of it, especially on the funding system and mechanism, is the major cause of the #FeesMustFall protests. While institutional managers and Vice Chancellors have a role to play, the lack of guidance and decisive leadership from the Ministry has deepened the crisis. Because of this lack of leadership there is every possibility that the protests will continue, and escalate into more violence and instability.

There are various challenges that caused the current crisis. We must reflect honestly, on all the information before us. Three main issues stand out: mismanagement of the National Students Financial Aid Scheme; higher education funding, in general, and the institutional mechanisms required to foster real higher education transformation.

Instead of resolving the higher education and vocational training funding crisis, the Ministry of Higher Education and the government, in general, has relied on the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which has been badly managed, and used to provide jobs for loyal members of the South African Communist Party (SACP). There is absolutely nothing that stopped Nzimande from addressing the higher education funding crisis in relation to NSFAS, because his predecessors in higher education established a review process which has, by and large been ignored since the Ministry of Higher Education was established in 2009.

However, instead of following the review process, Nizimande caused instability in the leadership of NSFAS. I am aware of this because I was appointed to the board of NSFAS by former Education Minister, Naledi Pandor in 2008. When he became minister, Nzimande instructed all board members, who were in the middle of the review process and implementation of a turnaround strategy, to resign. It is my understanding that the move was made under the direction of the SACP’s, Gwebs Qonde, who would become Director General of the Department of Higher Education.

I was personally instructed in December 2010 to resign by the Qonde, because the SACP wanted to introduce free education through NSFAS, and because they were going to appoint “experts” onto the board. I refused to resign. During an NSFAS board meeting, I told Qonde that the NSFAS should be used as a vehicle to liberate poor students. In all the board meetings I attended, I regularly raised the issue of converting the loan scheme into a bursary, and highlighted the fact that the threshold of students eligible for NSFAS had not changed in more than 10 years. I served until the end of my term in 2012. I believe that I was not reappointed because I did not match the criteria of the SACP.

I vividly remember that when board members handed in their resignation and new members were appointed into the NSFAS board, a common thread of all the new members of the board was that they had links to the SACP. Among the new appointments were Collette Caine (Nzimande’s personal financial advisor and SACP fundraiser), and ZB Sogayise, a former school principal with close links to the SCAP, and Qonde, the Director General of Higher Education.

Caine took control of NSFAS, and relocated to Cape Town to be closer to the office in order to micro-manage the scheme’s internal affair – an issue that was raised during board meetings. At the time, Chief Executive Officer, Ashley Seymour, who was appointed by the previous board, was fired, and replaced by Nathi Khena, who was, in turn, fired by Sogayise and Caine less than six months later. I voted against the dismissal. Khena was replaced by Msulwa Daca, who had been the Chief Financial Officer.

Under Caine’s control of NSFAS, new arrangements were introduced such as board fees, business class flights, the victimisation of union leaders, and informal social gatherings among loyal staff. A forensic examination of the NSFAS, during the period of SACP deployment may reveal the links between NSFAS and SACP benefactors. It may also show that the NSFAS went into a crisis during that period, which Nzimande admitted when he appointed the new chairperson.

Caine and Sogayise’s interference with NSFAS was reported in the media in June 2011, when Seymour took NSFAS to court for unfair dismissal. One of the main criticisms at the time was that Sogayise and Caine became operationally involved within the organisation, which created a hostile and intolerable work environment. Following Nzimande’s appointment, NSFAS plans for the creation of a central applications office lost direction, and the conversion of loans into bursary schemes failed to materialise. The most tragic development out of all these was the board’s refusal to minute and implement proposals that NSFAS should take over the debts of all academically deserving students who had been financially excluded, whether inside or outside the allocation criteria. Such a takeover would give financially excluded students access to their qualifications or academic records to continue with their studies or find jobs. The reality is that there were qualified students in South Africa who do not have certificates because they owed universities tuition fees. Additionally, the NSFAS failed to centralise applications and administration of the fund in order to avoid inconsistent selection and loan allocations criteria by institutions of higher learning.

While the government has celebrated the billions of rand in student loans availed to students, the massive administrative and political challenges imposed on NSFAS by Nzimande and his colleagues from the SACP, are heavy and disabled the institution from performing its functions properly. In August 2015, when announcing the appointment of the new NSFAS board chairperson, Sizwe Nxasana, the Minister identified the challenges confronting NSFAS. What the Minister did not explain was that the administrative crisis and challenges were his own creation. They were the result of the appointment of cronies, and failure to provide decisive direction on deliverables.

We are faced with a situation, now, where students have been compromised precisely because of a lack of adequate and proper political leadership. The Minister disregards skills and expertise, and makes nepotistic appointments. He also repeatedly raises conspiracy theories, and returns to statements made before the ANC’s 52nd National Conference in Polokwane. Before Polokwane, Nzimande said that “it cannot be correct that we all go hunt for nogwaja (rabbit), and once we caught it, only ANC leaders are the ones who eat, whilst we only get bones”. Those who understand parables will know what this means, but it looks like NSFAS was being turned into nogwaja for Nzimande and the SACP.

In December 2012, the Vice Chancellor and Principal of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Derrick Swartz, presented a report on the feasibility of free education. This report has still has not been released, despite the fact that it said free higher education was feasible. Perhaps Nzimande has not read the report because he rarely pays attention to details, and does not attend to his ministerial responsibilities, except ones which bring him immediate private benefits.

At the ANC’s 53rd National Conference in Mangaung, a resolution was taken that the policy for free higher education to all undergraduate level students would be finalised for adoption before the end of 2013. This resolution was taken after accepting that “University education is costly and academically capable students from poor families should not be expected to pay up-front fees in order to access higher education”. None of these resolutions have been implemented. It may well be that Nzimande has not read the resolutions, because there are no immediate personal benefits for him or the SACP.

The Parliamentary record may show that Minister Nzimande has never asked for additional Budgetary funds to finance free higher education, except for the normal inflationary adjustments. Requesting money from Parliament is a political function of Ministers and Nzimande has not done so.

Higher Education should be radically funded and existing institutions of higher learning expanded to absorb more students. When many students struggle to pass and attain their qualifications due to inadequate learning, teaching, and research support, there are many others who are waiting in line to gain access to higher education, but cannot because there are not enough spaces in institutions of higher learning. This trend is reflected in all institutions of higher learning, and Nzimande’s leadership on this crisis is the introduction of two new universities in Mpumalanga and Northern Cape. Jointly, these institutions can only take up to 10 000 students in the next 10 years.

The cost of running institutions of higher learning in a way which will provide free education is less than R50 billion. This is affordable through proper prioritisation. What is required is political will, and a commitment to introduce free quality education for all. Government’s political will has been directed towards the nuclear energy programme, which will possibly be completed when they are no longer in government and at double or triple the estimated price, the same will can be directed at provision of free quality education for all.

This lack of will is also evident in Parliament. The parliamentary record may show that the Minister of Higher Education and the government have not tabled a proposal in Parliament on how we should finance free quality education for all, despite the ruling party’s policy conference resolutions. The crisis is therefore a political crisis caused by politicians who do not want to take responsibility, and stay true to their own resolutions. If people fail to respect their own resolutions, it is difficult to expect them to respect other people’s resolutions.

Each time the EFF has raised the question of free quality higher education, Nzimande has responded by saying that the Freedom Charter does not call for free higher education. Citing the Freedom Charter, the Minister says, “Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit”. There are various interpretations of this, but the commitment to the provision of free quality higher education is an ideological and political commitment.

If allocating money for free quality higher education from the current budget will lead to a fiscal crisis, the Minister of Higher Education should mobilise the whole of society, and the enactment of legislation to will allow for an education tax from all private corporations and individuals. Society is already mobilised behind the need to develop a funding model for education, and can be mobilised to support a special education tax, which will could be ring fenced specifically for the provision of free quality education for all. What this means is that the corporates and individuals should take ownership of higher education funding.

Because government is usually the biggest financial contributor to institutions of higher learning, it should put in place a mechanism on how institutions of higher learning should respond to the country’s transformation objectives. This should, of course, not undermine academic freedom. Academics and students should be allowed freedom of research and academic expression without the dictates of the government of the day. There are transformational issues that can be achieved by the Department of Higher Education and institutions of higher learning. These could include concrete agreements on issues like:

  1. Ending all forms of financial exclusions.
  2. Academic and research support programmes which will guarantee maximum success rates for students.
  3. Minimum standards on institutional infrastructure, food, and residences.
  4. Minimum standards on employment conditions and salaries of all workers employed by institutions of higher learning, which should ban outsourcing and labour brokering.
  5. Fair, balanced and responsive curriculum.
  6. Quantitative and qualitative expansion targets, goals and aspirations.
  7. Universities’ contribution to societal open education.

Among others, these could play a significant role and could be established through deliberative means which involve all stake holders, inclusive of students, workers, parents, governments (local, provincial and national), and communities where the institutions of higher learning exist. This can be fostered through a properly structured dialogue, transformation charters and even legislation which bind institutions of higher learning to progressive developments.

The misguided belief that SASCO will turn things around because it is within the congress movement is illusionary. Successive generations of student leadership and brilliant activists from SASCO have made exactly the same demands, and there remain very minimal changes in the higher education sector. We should appreciate the fact that even at the current rates the fees are unaffordable for working families. High fees also decimate the NSFAS Loans granted to students and often leave them with no residences, food, and books. The #FeesMustFall Movement should intensify the struggle to achieve 0% increase of fees in 2016 academic year. Attaining a 0% increase will be a great achievement, but such should be escalated to demand for free quality education for all, illegalisation of financial exclusion, scrapping of all student debt, and qualitative and quantitative expansion of institutions of higher learning. The political leadership and structure of the Higher Education Ministry will not bring about the necessary changes demanded by students. DM

Floyd Shivambu is Deputy President of the Economic Freedom Fighters.

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