Nzimande: 75% of students won’t experience fee increases in 2017

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

Most tertiary education students will not have to pay fee increases in 2017, according to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande.

At a press conference in Pretoria on Thursday, the minister outlined steps the government is taking to protect some poor students, but did not address the #FeesMustFall collective’s demand for free education.

The minister said that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) would be providing R15.2-billion in student loans in 2017.

Critics say NSFAS, a government initiative to subsidise students, creates a debt trap for the students it finances and student groups remain adamant that the government must provide free education.

However, the higher education ministry still seems to rely heavily on NSFAS to provide access for poor students wanting to enter tertiary education.

Nzimande said NSFAS student would have their registration fees subsidised and will not have to pay an upfront fee to study at university. Students in families who earn R50 000 or less per month will no longer have to pay a fee increase in 2017. The same will go for NSFAS students.

“Those who will pay a fee increase capped at 8% are those who can afford it and those who come from rich families,” Nzimande said.

The work of a ‘serious government’
So far, the University of Fort Hare is the only institution that has said it will have no fee increase in 2017. The University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University and the University of the Witwatersrand are among those who have announced 8% fee increases.

In 2016, Nzimande recommended that universities cap their fee increase at 8%. It came after students enjoyed a small victory in 2015 where government announced that there would be no fee hikes for the 2016 year.

Despite the announcement of a fee hike in 2017, Nzimande said that government has made access to higher education a priority in the following ways:

  • NSFAS students who have “been successful in their studies” will be allowed to register in 2017 even if they still owe historical debt;
  • Academically successful students in the missing middle – those who don’t qualify for NSFAS but who cannot afford post-school fees – will also be allowed to register despite monies owed;
  • Government will pay 80% of the costs for courses students select in technical and vocational education and training colleges; and
  • R76-million will be made available for special needs to students to access higher education institutions.

“This is a sign of a serious government about improving access. That is why we call upon students to grab these opportunities with both hands and ensure that they concentrate on their studies,” Nzimande said.

He said that processes were under way to address long-term solutions to the fees crisis, and that the fees commission – established at the behest of the president – will present its findings on higher education fees later this year.

However, no firm outline of long-term plans regarding fees has yet been outlined by the ministry, and students last year disrupted the fees commission, saying it was not addressing students’ demands for free education

Opportunists and highjackers
Nzimande admitted that “a lot more still has to be done” for government to improve access to tertiary education, but warned students that there was a “darker side” to their protests.

“A variety of vested financial and political interests have also entered the scene essentially hoping to reap benefits from these student demands,” Nzimande said. “It is also becoming evident that some business interests are looking on with glee at what they hope will signal the collapse of the public higher education system in our country.”

He also said that poor students would be most affected by the instability, as middle- and upper-income students would move to private universities or abroad to seek education. He warned that academics are already leaving.

“We are by the way already getting information that we are beginning to lose some academics in our universities as a result of this instability,” Nzimande said.

There have been no clear examples that there is indeed an exodus of academics and students, but what is clear is that there is an expectation that student protests will continue in 2017.

Nzimande has said that government is committed to engaging with student leaders and organisations.

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