Universities dig in their heels over 0% fees hike as it is ‘unsustainable’

The powers that be at the country’s universities have pushed back on a proposed fee hike of 6.3% in a move that saw university councils reclaim authority over the running of their own finances.

A body representing the councils of the country’s 26 universities is adamant that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s comment this week – that the decision to increase fees rested with councils and not the ministry – was as a result of their interaction with him.

In a behind-the-scenes meeting last Thursday night, which was attended by vice-chancellors and some members of the University Council Chairs Forum (UCCF), council representatives insisted that they would have the final say over any decision reached between the government and universities on fee increases.

Nzimande met them the following day.

Roy Marcus, the UCCF’s deputy chairperson, said he told members at Thursday’s meeting that, if the government decided on a 0% fee increase for next year, it could not unilaterally impose it on all universities.

“Universities will have to go back to their councils and the councils will have to make a value judgment as to whether they can issue a mandate on the basis of that particular decision by government,” he said.

“We said we can longer be put into a position where we are held accountable, on the one hand, for the financial integrity of the university and, on the other hand, our power to make decisions on fees is taken away.”

Said Marcus: “The most disastrous thing that happened in October 2015 was that the decision [to hold councils accountable for universities’ finances] was taken away when there was an agreement that there would be a 0% fee increase for 2016.”

The ANC’s national executive committee resolved after last weekend’s meeting that the principle of no-fee increases in universities should remain in place.

Vice-chancellors at last Thursday’s meeting also decided not to align themselves with either Nzimande or students.

One vice-chancellor told the Mail & Guardian that colleagues at other universities had stated quite strongly that their commitment was primarily to their university.

“They don’t feel the need to be politically aligned, either with the minister against the students or with the students against the minister. Our primary mandate is to ensure the quality of our academic programmes and the financial sustainability of the university.”

Meanwhile, Ahmed Bawa, chief executive of Universities South Africa (USAf), an association representing the country’s 26 universities, said there was “a very strong reaction” from vice-chancellors to the recommendation by the Council on Higher Education (CHE), a body that advises Nzimande, that fees increase by 6.3% next year.

USAf said an increase of less than 8% in annual income “is likely to compromise the financial health” of at least 17 universities as early as next year. “We just felt that it was the wrong recommendation and we made that quite clear to the minister.”

Bawa said the 8% increase suggested by the vice-chancellors
was not a “thumb-suck” figure but was arrived at after calculations involving higher education price index.

He said he was in discussions with the department of higher education’s deputy director general of universities, Diane Parker, on the establishment of a multistakeholder forum to look at all the options available to secure the extra 8% in revenue.

Bawa said they had decided “with a very firm resolve” before meeting Nzimande that it would be quite devastating to the university sector to settle for a 6.3% increase.

“We were not prepared to accept a CPI [consumer price index] increase,” he said.

As vice-chancellors met Nzimande, more than 1 200 academics from 18 universities wrote an open letter to him as well as to President Jacob Zuma and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, urging them to address the funding crisis in higher education.

They said that “year on year” they had noticed a decrease in government funding to public universities.

“The effect of this has been to create conditions of austerity in universities as well as to force universities to grow their revenue by increasing tuition fees and third-stream income.”

The scholars said that the public universities could barely be called “public” any longer, with subsidies from the government falling from 49% in 2000 to 40% in 2012.

“We have reached a limit. We cannot weather any further cuts without jeopardising the academic project.”

Gwebinkundla Qonde, the director general of higher education, said he could not say when Nzimande would make an announcement on next year’s fees.

“The question of the fee increase is a consultative matter. We realised it would be quite important for the minister to consult broadly, including outside the realm of higher education,” Qonde said.

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