Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has told parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education that he will present a comprehensive proposal to the cabinet on how to tackle funding of university students – in June.
This comes as the South African Union of Students (SAUS) has said that it will continue with its national shutdown of higher education institutions. Students are demanding, among other things, the scrapping of historical debt to allow those in arrears to register to study this year.
Last week, the chief executive of Universities South Africa, Professor Ahmed Bawa, told the committee that historical debt is estimated to stand at R14-billion, but that the number could be much higher.
The minister first made the announcement that the cabinet had asked his department to work on a framework on how to deal with student funding early in March. He told the committee on Tuesday 23 March that he will establish a task team consisting of people with relevant expertise to guide him on what needs to happen with student funding, including the missing middle.
The missing middle are students who are too rich to qualify for assistance under the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) but still cannot afford higher education.
As he had told the committee last week, Nzimande reiterated on Tuesday that the biggest problem with funding related to the missing middle. The children of the poor and working class, he said, were taken care of through NSFAS.
Nzimande said his department is collecting data from universities in order to provide a profile of the students that have historical debt at each institution, and bring it together.
He said this is being done to see if the government can “urgently” do something to assist the students with genuine cases.
“We are interested in [whether] there is debt that can be written off – for whatever reason it is not collectable anymore. What category of students are owing? We also need to know that, because there are students who are owing and genuinely their case is missing middle, but there are students who are owing who come from wealthy families, who can afford to pay. We need to make a distinction so that we have a proper profile of the data, which I am hoping that I will get by Friday [26 March],” said Nzimande.
He said he would take the data to the cabinet, who would decide what to do next. Nzimande would not be drawn on making any commitments about what the government would do with the information.
The committee sat to discuss ongoing student protests at universities following a call by SAUS for a national shutdown. On 17 March committee chairperson Philemon Mapulane postponed the meeting to 23 March after Nzimande and Deputy Minister Buti Manamela indicated that they could not stay for the meeting, citing other engagements.
SAUS spokesperson Thabo Shingange told the meeting on Tuesday that a meeting of the union’s national executive committee on Sunday had decided that the national shutdown would continue. Shingange added that the union would mobilise the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union and the taxi industry for mass action, targeting government sites such as the NSFAS offices, the department of higher education, the national treasury as well as parliament and the Union Buildings.
The meeting heard that Nzimande and SAUS are expected to meet this week to discuss student demands.