Gordhan to meet fees commission

The fees commission has invited Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to present testimony before it in a bid to learn from him “if there is enough political will to implement fee-free higher education in South Africa”.

Musa Ndwandwe, the spokesperson for the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training, said they were interested in having Gordhan appear before it because he has political responsibility over the treasury.

“His understanding of the government policy as well as the fiscal constraints would assist the commission to understand better the machinations of the state budgeting process.”

Following the #FeesMustFall protests in 2015, President Jacob Zuma established the commission, chaired by retired Judge Jonathan Heher, to investigate the feasibility of offering free higher education.

Ndwandwe said, although the hearings that focused on the post-school education policy had been concluded, the commission was still interested in hearing Gordhan’s views.

“We have evidence before us that they [the department of higher education] have been requesting certain amounts to be able to implement the mandate [of progressively introducing free higher education] and they have not been assisted when it comes to allocations.

“So we would love to interrogate all those issues, which would enable us to come to a better understanding of how allocations are made.”

He said Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande had testified last week that his department’s budget submissions for the past five years had been adjusted downwards by the treasury, which had cited other priorities.

Nzimande told the commission that the growth in student numbers without a matching growth in subsidy funding had resulted in general underfunding of higher education, putting pressure on institutions to raise funds through fees and third-stream income.

He said the net result was that university fees had become increasingly unaffordable to the working and lower-middle class.

According to Nzimande, block grant funding had to increase by at least 50% to ensure the sustainability of higher education.

Ndwandwe said they were also keen to get Gordhan to appear before the commission following his remarks about there being sufficient funding for free higher education “if corruption is out of the equation”.

“The commission will be very keen to have the finance minister addressing it on the issues that are relevant to the fiscus and the decisions that get taken in the allocation of budgets.”

All eyes will be on Gordhan on October 26 when he presents his medium-term budget policy statement in Parliament, which will include how he plans to fund the fees shortfall.

On Tuesday, the ANC’s national executive committee asked the government to include Gordhan in the ministerial task team appointed by Zuma last week to normalise the situation at higher education institutions.

Said Ndwandwe: “We have it on record by the minister of higher education that there is a lot of co-operation between his department and treasury so we would love to know from the other side, which is treasury, what are their frustrations and whether it is possible to look at the issue of funding for higher education differently.”

Ndwandwe said Gordhan’s office had “expressed a willingness to be part of this very important process”.

The treasury confirmed on Wednesday night that Gordhan had agreed to appear before the commission to give testimony at a date to be determined.

Meanwhile, Sizwe Nxasana, the chairperson of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, confirmed that a pilot project will be launched next year to provide financial assistance to “missing middle” students.

Nxasana, who is also the chairperson of the ministerial task team responsible for investigating a comprehensive funding model for poor and “missing middle” students, said those chosen for the pilot scheme would receive an average of about R100 000 a year to cover the full cost of their study.

He declined to divulge the amount that had been collected so far for the project. “It’s difficult to say how many students we will fund [for the pilot] because we only started fund-raising a couple of weeks ago. There’s still a long way to go.”

Funds for the pilot project would come mostly from the private sector, which would include the commercial banks, insurance industry and mining houses.

“There is some funding for the pilot from international sources.”

Nxasana said they had also “tested” the overseas market for funding, adding that there was interest.

“Once the necessary approvals have been sought, we will then obviously go on international road shows as well [to raise funds].”

The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants’ Thuthuka Education Upliftment Fund will manage the money collected for the pilot project, which will be paid out to the students.

A report released by the parliamentary budget office on Tuesday said additional funding from the fiscus will be required, irrespective of the funding model that is to be proposed for higher education.

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