One step closer to free varsities

Free education for poor university students moved sharply up the government’s priorities this week with the announcement of a ministerial committee to advise Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande on how to provide it.

Chaired by Marcus Balintulo, vice-chancellor of Walter Sisulu University for Technology and Science, the committee’s “most important task… is to provide recommendations that would give effect to government’s commitment to progressively introduce free education for the poor up to undergraduate level”, Nzimande said this week in his budget speech.

Providing free higher education for poor students was one of the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane resolutions. The government’s R2-billion bursary and loan scheme for poor students, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), has been repeatedly criticised for the inadequacy of the amounts it provides and for not disbursing all the funds at its disposal.

Former education minister Naledi Pandor first mooted the idea of a review of the scheme in February this year after NSFAS had presented her with a document on how it could streamline its operations to benefit a greater number of students. Such a review now has renewed importance because NSFAS would be the implementing agency for free undergraduate education.

Pandor also heard from the vice-chancellors’ association, Higher Education South Africa (Hesa), that an enhanced contribution from the government to NSFAS was the preferred strategy — instead of the capping of fees by the government or free education across the board — to ensure more students had access to higher education.
Hesa chair Theuns Eloff told the Mail & Guardian: “Nzimande’s interpretation of the Polokwane resolution [in the context of NSFAS] means that free education for poor students is achievable but then ‘poor’ has to be properly defined.” He said at present some students were not considered poor enough according to NSFAS’s eligibility threshold to qualify for aid, but did not have the family means to qualify for bank loans either.

Nzimande’s budget speech also provided a clearer picture of the responsibilities the new ministry and department of higher education and training will carry.

The department will cover all public and private higher education institutions and colleges. But in a move that could signal a more coherent approach to skills development, Setas, the National Skills Authority and the National Skills Fund — all previously the preserve of the labour department — will also fall under Nzimande.

Skills development has been bedevilled by tussles between the education and labour departments to control the skills agenda.

Nzimande’s focus on widening access, which has already emerged as a key priority for his department, was also reaffirmed by his plans to strengthen the training sector.

He said a priority would be to create a diverse and differentiated post-school system through “the improved alignment” of the university, college and Seta systems. He said Setas needed an “intensive assessment” to ensure greater accountability, the better use of resources and to ensure they “fulfil their role as a central cog of our skills training and job creation machinery”.

Nzimande also announced further education and training (FET) technical colleges will move from the jurisdiction of the provincial departments of education to his ministry. The colleges have been hamstrung by poor management capacity in many of the provincial departments of education. He said his department will finalise a national policy on minimum requirements to ensure that students who complete their FET college education can pursue university studies.

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Cornia Pretorius
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