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Zuma says universities are too costly – Nzimande disagrees

Against the backdrop of a complaint by President Jacob Zuma about soaring university costs, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has said the government is underfunding the institutions.

Speaking at a media briefing on Monday in Pretoria, Nzimande said the ANC was raising “legitimate concerns”, but South Africa’s allocation of only 1.4% of the gross domestic product to higher education was low. “Even by African standards we’re below average. We do need to increase the amount of money we use to support our higher education institutions.”

A damning government report released in 2013, whose investigation committee was chaired by then-ANC deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, concluded that university funding in the country has not kept up with enrolment, and lags behind other countries.

But addressing the ANC’s January anniversary celebrations in Cape Town at the weekend, Zuma sought to give the impression that escalating university costs were diminishing the government’s allocations for students.

“We are … showing steady improvements in tertiary education and student financial aid is increasing all the time. Our figures show that more than 1.4-million students have benefited from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS),” Zuma said.

“However, we are concerned at the escalating costs of tertiary education and the annual raising of fees by universities and other institutions of higher learning. This escalating cost has become another source of exclusion for the poor and vulnerable South African child. While we appreciate the autonomy of universities, we must caution universities against excluding students on the basis of price and race.

“South Africans are now free to enter any profession they wish and the biggest limitation to this right is often peoples’ own internal capacities.”

Higher education inflation is higher
Nzimande said he had agreed to a meeting with vice-chancellors to discuss various issues, “including what’s driving high costs at universities”.

He identified the importing of university training material as one of the drivers of high costs. “We import books [and] equipment, when we talk about the exchange rate. As a result higher education inflation is higher than the country’s inflation.”

The government’s student loan and bursary scheme, NSFAS, needed an extra R51-billion to fund all qualifying university students, Nzimande’s department told Parliament last year.

The scheme has R9.5-billion for university, and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges this year.

The minister said the money would cover 205??000 “first-time entering and continuing eligible students” at the 26 universities and 200?000 TVET students.

The universities and colleges would have 425?095 new entrants this year, Nzimande said. This is 28?646 more than last year.

Massive backlogs
The new TVET openings include 44?000 for engineering and business studies, and 37?000 for the national certificate vocational classes.

Many students are likely to find accommodation at their universities. But the chief director of higher education policy at the department, Chief Mabizela, conceded there was still a massive backlog. “You will remember that a task team that the minister established a few years ago established that … we’re accommodating 21% of students.”

“The department has spent quite some amount of money [on] infrastructure development at universities. In the past three years, the department allocated R1.6-billion for [the] construction of student accommodation at the universities – and R1.4-billion of that amount went to the historically disadvantaged institutions.

“There is a backlog. There will still be a backlog, but at least there is [something] that is being done by the department. And of course the institutions are putting [in] their monies as well,” said Mabizela.

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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