No-fee varsity report gathers dust

A government study into the introduction of free university ­education for poor students has been sitting with Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande for almost three years.

The Mail & Guardian understands Nzimande received the study in December 2012 from a working group he appointed. Derrick Swartz, the vice-chancellor of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, chaired the group.

It is unclear why Nzimande has not released the report. Comment was repeatedly sought from his department this week, but it did not respond.

Officials in Nzimande’s department told Parliament in October last year that the working group had advised him that free university education for the poor was feasible, according to minutes of the meeting the M&G has seen.

Ntuthuko Makhombothi, president of the ANC-aligned South African Students Congress, told the M&G last week that the body – in speeches and statements – had repeatedly demanded the publication of the report.

“It was supposed to have been released a long time ago,” he said.

Jonas Magedi, leader of the Socialist Youth Movement, said this week he suspects the report has been buried. “They are refusing to release it because it would embarrass them,” he said.

“Once the country knows that free education for the poor can cost, let’s say, hypothetically speaking, R40?billion, wouldn’t we all be shocked that this country is refusing to implement the report?

“We’re calling for Blade to release that report. Why isn’t he releasing it?”

The commissioned report appears to have informed the ANC’s resolution at its 2012 Mangaung congress that the government “must introduce a newly structured national student financial aid system to enable fee-free education from 2014 onwards”.

Makhombothi said: “Our critique currently on the ANC government – and that is why we’re planning to march to the minister [Nzimande] – is on this very issue, that in 2012 you said: ‘2014 will be the year in which we’ll implement free education for poor students.’

“It’s now 2015, but the policy on free education is not there today. We’re raising these issues, saying that we can’t be playing cat and mouse.”

He said poor students face a funding crisis. “We anticipate that [the crisis] is going to be there next year too if we don’t speed up the introduction of free education. We have always said the solution is to implement free education,” said Makhombothi.

ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa did not reply to emailed questions.

Nico Cloete, director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, a nongovernmental organisation, said this week a distinction needs to drawn between wholesale free university education and free university education for the poor.

He said the latter is realistic and could be implemented in a similar way to that of the National Students Financial Aid Scheme – applicants must prove they cannot afford fees.

“[Blanket] free higher education is a really bad idea, unless you’re Norway or Finland. In all other Third-World and developing countries, free higher education has privileged the middle class, not the poor. But the issue of free higher education for the poor is a different matter,” he said.

Student leaders have blamed ­exorbitant university fees and the government’s failure to provide enough funding for the fact that many poor students are excluded from university education.

The M&G has reported that thousands of poor black students have had to drop out of varsity this year and many others are in the system but do not know how they will settle their fees, have no textbooks and wallow in poverty on campus (“When learning’s door gets bolted for students”, February 20).

Two weeks ago members of organisations such as the Socialist Youth Movement, the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command and the South African Democratic Students Movement marched on Nzimande’s offices in Pretoria to demand that he scrap the loan scheme and introduce free study.

The Socialist Youth Movement’s Magedi explained the context of their demands: “We’re calling for free education for the poor. By the poor we also mean a child of an ordinary worker – your nurses, police and teachers. A child of [mining magnate Patrice] Motsepe is not a poor child; no need to have free education for that child.”

Poor college students suffer

Not only is the government seemingly dithering on free university education for the poor, it is also cutting the number of public college students who quality for bursaries.

Education is free for students who can prove they cannot pay fees at the country’s 50 technical and vocational education and training colleges. 

Although 273 679 poor students were granted bursaries in 2014, Blade Nzimande’s higher  education and training department is planning for only 200 000 in 2015. 

This means 73 000 fewer poor students will be given assistance this year. This data is contained in the department’s annual performance plan presented to Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education and training last week, which the Mail & Guardian has seen. 

The cut comes despite the allocation to the bursary scheme having increased by R96.3-million year-on-year. Just slightly more than R2.2-billion has gone to colleges for 2015 bursaries. 

Khaye Nkwanyana, Nzimande’s spokesperson, did not respond to emailed questions. The minister has been on a drive to attract more students to the colleges. 

This year, the department is aiming at a figure of 725 000 students, up from 670 455 in 2014. The government wants to increase enrolment at the institutions to 1.25-million by 2030. – Bongani Nkosi

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