Ante upped in varsity fees showdown

University campuses and the #FeesMustFall movement have been eerily calm in 2017, but as the year draws to a close the burning issue of free higher education is likely to come to a head.

Adding to an already shaky state of affairs, this week President Jacob Zuma removed Blade Nzimande from his long-held post as higher education minister. Meanwhile, the fees commission report remains tightly held under Zuma’s lock and key as the clock rapidly counts down to the end of the academic year.

A presidential fees commission, established in January 2016, was mandated to look into the feasibility of free higher education and handed its report to Zuma on August 31 this year.

Various university stakeholders surveyed told the Mail & Guardian they had not seen the report, and its contents were still widely unknown.

High-level university sources claim that vice-chancellors had asked Zuma to consult them before making any announcements, but that no such consultation has transpired as yet.

Student activist Fasiha Hassan, one of the #FeesMustFall leaders, said there appeared to have been a concerted effort to keep the report out of the hands of students, which she claimed showed that students were viewed as the enemy rather than as a stakeholder in higher education.

Hassan believed the report may have been withheld from students because it included a funding model that they had bemoaned was as a “glorified loan scheme”, rather than free education.

If a budgetary shift towards higher education is likely, it will be expected that Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba indicates as much in his first budget event at the treasury, the medium-term budget policy statement, which will be released next week. The statement is key to the treasury’s budgeting process and must propose a spending framework for the government over the next three years.

Gigaba will be hard-pressed to find the money needed for free higher education along with a number of other urgent demands on the budget — such as money to prop up SAA — and exacerbated by a tax revenue shortfall.

But as chaos and uncertainty swamp the government, most campuses remain relatively undisturbed by protest action and universities are getting on with the business of budgeting for next year, with fee increases on the cards.

Ahmed Bawa, the chief executive of Universities South Africa, said the general consensus among universities is to begin budget planning for next year.

“We have to have some kind of budget; it is not possible to go into next year with this year’s budget,” said Bawa. “As such, universities are going to their councils with various scenarios, which are presented on the basis that they may change depending on what comes out from the fees commission.”

Generally, an 8% increase is seen as necessary. “Now, that may come from an increase in fees or from subsidies from government, but we are looking at 8%.” On average, university fees grew by 9.2% between 2010 and 2014.

Some universities have announced preliminary fee hikes for 2018. Stellenbosch University announced last week a proposed fee increase of 8% “to ensure the institution’s long-term financial sustainability, world-class academic qualifications and research output, and to ensure a consistent and significant positive impact on society”.

The Free State Central University of Technology also warned of a preliminary 2018 budget that factored in an 8% fee increase.

The Higher Education Transformation Network, an independent network of alumni, condemned the plans to increase fees and this week called on Zuma to release the commission’s report urgently.

The matter is pressing, although it has not come down to the wire yet. Most higher education institutions will begin exams in the coming weeks and the University of the Witwatersrand has said it can hold off until December to announce a fees hike.

The university said financial planning and modelling was under way but was “not meaningful without knowledge of the recommendations of the report”.

Hassan said: “Despite what they like to think, we are not unreasonable,” said Hassan. She said students would wait to see the outcome of the fees commission and its report before determining the way forward.

However, classes were disturbed this week at the University of the Free State over (unconfirmed) news that fees would be hiked 12.5% next year.

But, for some students, decisions need to be taken now. On Monday, Nzimande released a statement urging students to apply to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme for funding before the deadline.

In a response to the M&G’s questions — received just hours before Nzimande was axed — the ministry of higher education and training said its call for students to apply for funding was not influenced by the commission’s report. But it warned: “Any student who has not applied cannot be considered for funding in 2018, regardless of any policy decisions that may be made in this regard.”

Nzimande’s office said, as is standard practice with all commission reports, the presidency would study the fees report and its recommendations in depth. “Higher education and training respects and supports this process and will not comment further on the matter until the report is made public by the presidency.”

The presidency did not respond to requests for information and timelines.

Bawa said, despite the differences between universities and Nzimande, they had worked well with him over the past eight years and were really pleased with his big policy initiatives, such as the huge increase in the financial aid budget.

“We will try very hard to establish a relationship with the new minister [former minister of home affairs Hlengiwe Mkhize].

“At this point in time, we don’t have immediate issues. Our main concern is that the system is extraordinarily unstable and we just hope the new higher education minister brings about a certain level of stability,” Bawa said.

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