This week’s ANC policy conference resolved that free higher education for working class, “missing middle” students and the poor must be implemented from next year – “subject to availability of funds”.
The resolution still needs to go to the party’s elective conference in December before it can be adopted.
The Mail & Guardian has seen the internal report that was presented at the conference. It reads: “In line with the resolution of the 52nd and 53rd conferences of the ANC, the ANC government accelerates the implementation of a new financial support model to ensure that academically capable poor, working-class and middle-strata students are supported to access higher education, and receive fully subsidised free higher education and training by 2018, subject to availability of funds.”
The resolution can be seen as a victory for the ANC Youth League, which is pushing for free higher education for the poor. Youth league president Collen Maine said it would have failed if a resolution on free higher education did not materialise.
The deputy secretary general of the league, Thandi Moraka, said the body was pleased that the issue of free higher education had received “the necessary support”.
“The poor, those who can’t afford university fees, we must prioritise them … because we know the majority of South African communities are poor,” she said.
“Let government go and find resources to implement this obligation, because it’s going to assist us as the ANC to also be appealing to the masses of our people [who] are gradually losing hope in the ANC. So, if the ANC can stand firm and [go] out and look for funds … to implement this free quality education for our people, I think we will see that confidence in the ANC will be restored,” she said.
Two years ago, students across the country held #FeesMustFall protests, which led to campuses being closed and a march to the Union Buildings by students. Following the protests, President Jacob Zuma announced a 0% university fee increase in 2016.
But, in September, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said universities could increase fees subject to an 8% cap.
Students then picked up where they had left off and universities were again closed down, with some students only able to write their exams in January.
One of the #FeesMustFall student leaders, Mcebo Dlamini, said the resolution taken by the ANC policy conference was a victory.
The former University of the Witwatersrand student representative council president, who attended the ANC policy conference, said even though the discussions had touched on the financial constraints to implementing fee-free tertiary education, the resolution showed that there was political will, which is what students had been asking for.
“They will have to find money somewhere because money is there but it is lost through corruption and incompetence. For example, you can’t prioritise the bailing out of SAA over free higher education because free higher education is an investment for the country,” said Dlamini.
But he said the resolution must be celebrated with caution: “We must not relax and we must ensure that it is implemented … Even if they start with a pilot of 100 students, but they they must start next year.”
The Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command was not impressed, accusing the ANC of wanting to “manipulate” and “deceive” people because it is losing support.
Its president, Peter Keetse, said: “The only way to help ANC gain the confidence [of the people] is to continue lying, with the same resolutions that have been taken many times.
This is not new because the question of free higher education has been discussed at every conference of the ANC,” he said. He accused the party of being “opportunistic” – using the issues of land and free higher education to gain support because it knew they would resonate.
“We know it [free higher education] is not going to happen, whether we like it or not. Especially with the current leadership, we must forget [about it],” said Keetse.
At the policy conference, Zuma said he was awaiting the Heher commission’s report on the feasibility of fee-free higher education. The commission was due to conclude its work on June 30, after which Heher has two months to deliver a report to the president.
Zuma said the party was “resolute that no child from a working-class and poor background will be denied access to education”, especially higher education.
‘The call should be for affordable higher education’
One higher education expert who has cautioned against free higher education is Dr Nico Cloete, director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust.
In a 2015 paper, titled The Flawed Ideology of Free Higher Education, he argued that free higher education “sounds revolutionary and is an appealing mobilising cry”.
“But in a developing country it is financially, empirically and morally wrong – the poster should read ‘Affordable higher education for all’ – with a clear understanding that affordable means different costs for different groups in society,” he said.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian on Thursday, Cloete said a critical question that must be answered if government does offer free higher education is: What will be free?
“Is it going to be free tuition, accommodation and everything? If it’s free education, what will be the incentive that will get the poor students to leave university? You might have a situation where you have students spending eight to nine years in the system,” he said.
He said currently 53% of undergraduate students leave after six years and that only 30% graduate leave after three years, which is the minimum period.
There was pressure on students studying on a loan to leave because they know if they stay longer their loan gains more interest, he said.
But chairperson of Universities South Africa (Usaf) Professor Ahmed Bawa said university policies don’t allow students to stay on for years without graduating.
He said all universities have a rule that a student studying for a three-year undergraduate qualification cannot be at a university for five years, unless there is a deep-seated issue that has hindered the student from passing.
“You cannot have free education for your whole life,” said Bawa.
He said Usaf has being arguing for a long time for free higher education for the poor and would fully support its implementation.
“Usaf has made it clear that the students who currently qualify for NSFAS [National Student Financial Aid Scheme], those students qualify for fee-free higher education, we are completely aligned.”
He said the debate is about how one defines poor and “missing middle” students – too rich to qualify for NSFAS but too poor to afford fees.