#FeesMustFall aftermath may ignite more protests, unless funding shortfall is found

A view by university vice-chancellors that fee-free higher education is not feasible in the foreseeable future is likely to fuel further tensions between student organisations and higher education institutions.

Universities South Africa (USAf), a body representing vice-chancellors of the country’s 26 universities, states in a document that it would not support a fee-free higher education system “unless there is clarity on how the full higher education budget will be constructed to maintain current levels and quality of service delivery”.

It warns that if government adopted a fee-free education policy “prematurely”, the country would suffer severe consequences, which could result in the higher education sector collapsing.

Entitled Universities Funding in South Africa: A Fact Sheet, the document, which was circulated to universities, states “for the foreseeable future, free higher education is not feasible in South Africa” because universities remain dependent on state support, which continues to decline.

“Students who are in the position to pay fees must therefore continue to do so for the foreseeable future,” the document says.

USAf confirms that universities “empathetic” with the plight of students wanting free education for the needy and academically-deserving had made a proposal to the Council on Higher Education (CHE) – a body that advises the higher education minister, Blade Nzimande, on revenue collection mechanisms that could lead to a fee-free regime.

The South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) has labelled USAf’s view that fee-free higher education is not feasible in the foreseeable future as “very reactionary”.

At the height of the protests in October, students marched to Parliament and handed a memorandum to the deputy higher education minister, Mduduzi Manana, demanding free higher education. The government then placed a moratorium on fee increases for this year and it provided universities with R1.9-billion towards the R2.3billion shortfall they were facing.

President Jacob Zuma also appointed a commission of inquiry, headed by retired Supreme Court of Appeal judge Jonathan Heher, to investigate the feasibility of providing free higher education.

In 2012 a working group looking at fee-free university education estimated that it would cost government between R100-million and R1-billion to provide free education for 163 000 poor university students in 2013.

The ANC adopted a resolution in 2007 to “progressively introduce free higher education for the poor until undergraduate level”.

The main source of funding for the 26 universities comes from state subsidies and tuition fees; corporate and commercial activities, investments and donations make up a small proportion of their revenue.

According to USAf, state support for most universities, on average, accounts for more than two-thirds of their unrestricted revenue. The state’s allocation to universities was R26.2billion in the past financial year.

USAf says there was a steady decline in the teaching input grant that the state allocated to universities before the consumer price index (CPI) was taken into account.

“It is of grave importance therefore that any move towards fee-free higher education takes into account the need to bolster the teaching and research block grants to universities,” the document continues. “Stable funding systems for universities are critical for their long term optimal operation.”

USAf has lobbied government for years for adequate funds, including increased funding for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which provides loans and bursaries to poor students.

Besides the state subsidy, universities receive close to R30-billion annually from tuition and accommodation fees.

USAf states that if tuition fees “dried up, as would be the case if a fee-free higher education policy were to be adopted prematurely, the country would suffer severe consequences”. These could feasibly include:

  • Budget cuts leading to retrenchments;
  • The quality of higher education being compromised by uncertainty, leading to a haemorrhaging of staff;
  • Research being compromised and academics becoming demoralised;
  • Universities being forced to curtail academic offerings;
  • The wealthy sending their children to private institutions locally and overseas, leaving the poor to receive substandard education; and
  • A fee-free regime resulting in the subsidisation of the wealthy because students able to afford higher education would be released from contributing to the functioning of the system.

It says a fee-free system “could result in distortion in the size and shape of universities”.

USAf said the country’s National Development Plan’s (NDP) aspirations to a more knowledgeintensive, transformed economy and a wider system of innovation by 2030 would become “a mockery” if academic offerings, student access and academics’ demographics declined.

Last year’s #FeesMustFall campaign dealt a severe blow to an already ailing sector. “Notwithstanding that the DHET [department of higher education] contributed up to 80% of the universities’ revenue shortfall arising from the fee-increase freeze for 2016, the moratorium created a series of challenges that cast serious doubt on whether the sector will ever recover,” it says, adding that one of the consequences of the fee increase freeze was compromising universities’ debt collection capabilities because “many [parents] pay fees sluggishly, if at all, while awaiting a free-education policy announcement”.

USAf says despite the impressive contribution of universities to the economy, South Africa is still one of the lowest spenders on higher education of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.

Sasco’s secretary general, Tembani Makata, says the organisation was not surprised by USAf’s view on fee-free higher education.

“They [the vice-chancellors] are running our institutions as though they are running businesses. Education must not be run as if you are running a corporate institution.”

She said the higher education department, the presidential commission and other stakeholders should together come up with models on how to fund free education for the poor.

Makata said protests were put on hold in January because they were “given hope” that the presidential commission would work on a proposal to fund free higher education. “We are expecting a report in September on how far they are [on the issue of fee-free higher education] and what’s going to happen in January.”

She says “deployees” on student representative councils had been instructed not discuss fees with universities’ management. “If institutions force us to go into discussions on fee increments, we are going to close those institutions up until they listen to us,” she says.

Ahmed Essop, former chief executive of the CHE, also believes fee-free higher education is not feasible yet because “the resources don’t exist”.

“It’s not saying that free higher education shouldn’t be an ideal but it will happen in the very long term if it happens at all,” he adds. “I think the problem is that students don’t understand the context and I don’t mean that negatively. There has been no attempt made nationally to engage with the students. I think we need a process of engagement which brings together all the stakeholders.

“The other problem we are not addressing in the funding issue is the size of the higher education system. It’s too large. We’ve been growing the system without looking at the funding challenges that it poses.”

Reacting to Sasco’s comment that its view on fee-free higher education was “reactionary”, USAf’s chief executive, Ahmed Bawa, says they would not be too concerned if a fee-free regime was introduced “as long as the fee component of the university’s budget didn’t simply disappear”.

“There’s a common understanding that universities are not in a position to provide a solution. The problem is really about the way we fund higher education. Universities just don’t have the capacity to meet the kinds of challenges that is required of them.”

Bawa said universities were “very much on the edge”, adding: “Some will begin this year to consider the possibility of staff cuts.”

Nico Cloete, director of the CHE Trust, stated in a paper published by the trust that the country’s undergraduate system was too expensive mainly as a result of government underfunding: “The South African undergraduate system is unsustainable; in 2015 universities had an accumulated debt of around R5-billion while NSFAS has a debt of around R15-billion.”

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Prega Govender
Prega Govender is the Mail & Guardians education editor. He was a journalist at the Sunday Times for almost 20 years before joining the M&G in May 2016. He has written extensively on education issues pertaining to both the basic and higher education sectors.

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