Tension builds as HE sector awaits government’s fee plan
Tension is mounting as the higher education sector continues to await the official release of the Heher Commission report on the feasibility of fee-free higher education – mere weeks before the end of the 2017 academic year and following last weekend’s leak of the report by national newspaper City Press.
According to City Press, the 748-page report’s finding is that universal free tertiary education will not be feasible in the foreseeable future – as students have demanded – and recommends that different funding models should be adopted to ensure access for all deserving students.
Minister of Communications Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane told journalists during a post-cabinet briefing on Thursday 2 November that the cabinet had been briefed on the status of the report. She said it was “going to be released, hopefully, next week”.
President Jacob Zuma appointed the commission in 2016 after disruptive and often violent nation-wide #FeesMustFall protests around the country. The commission presented its report to Zuma at the end of August.
In a 28 October statement, the Presidency said it was “finalising the processing of the report which requires, among other things, that the Presidency consult with the relevant ministers to ensure that government is ready to implement the President’s decision as soon as he releases the report. The consultations with relevant ministries is at an advanced stage and it is expected that it will be finalised during the course of next week.”
Kubayi-Ngubane said on Thursday that the [further] delay – announced after the cabinet meeting – had been occasioned by “issues that cabinet asked to deal with" and reportedly hinted that there would be cost and legislative implications arising out of the report.
According to City Press, among the main recommendations of the leaked Heher Commission report are:
- A “cost-sharing model”, in terms of which the government commits to spending a fixed 1% of the gross domestic product to subsidise universities, with students paying fees according to a “fair and affordable” structure regulated by the Council on Higher Education.
- An “income-contingent loan” system, in terms of which students would repay their debt based on their post-qualification salaries. This would replace the existing National Student Financial Aid Scheme. In terms of this loans system, there will be some students who receive a free education because their careers will not reach a threshold that triggers a repayment obligation.
- The scrapping of registration fees, a controversial issue that fuels student protests at the beginning of each year.
- A “fee-free” structure for Technical and Vocational Education and Training or TVET college students, who tend to come from poorer backgrounds, with 100% funding coming from the Department of Higher Education and Training; and the introduction of a stipend for TVET students.
- Ring-fencing R50 billion (US$3.5 billion) from the surplus in the Unemployment Insurance Fund for infrastructure spending on the TVET sector.
- Channelling unclaimed pension benefits into the university sector.
- The establishment of an education fund for companies, individuals and international aid organisations to donate money towards higher education; encouraging more donations from alumni; and streamlining Sector Education and Training Authorities and channelling savings into TVET teaching and curriculum development.
Concerns over the leaking of the report – and the government’s failure to respond immediately to it – were raised by peak universities body Universities South Africa which said in a statement last Sunday: "This failure then inflames a highly tense political environment and could expand the protests at universities thereby compromising the final year examinations currently underway in most institutions."
The past week has seen ongoing protests and disruptions over the release of the report at the University of Cape Town where year-end examinations are pending. On Thursday, three students were arrested during a 200-strong protest which disrupted classes and damaged university vehicles. Human excrement was deposited in some venues.
The Cape Peninsula University of Technology and the University of the Free State have also been the site of student protests during the past month, while the University of the Witwatersrand has increased its security measures as it attempts to keep the university open for examinations.
Last week, students marched on Parliament calling for free education and for Zuma to release the report. Sinawo Thambo of the University of Cape Town's Student Representative Council was quoted as saying in a local press report: “If the final report has those contents, I think people can expect a lot of unrest with regards to that.”
Ferment and chaos
Political analyst Richard Calland said the delay in the release of the report and the government’s failure to act timeously to its recommendations has raised the possibility that Zuma might want to create ferment and chaos in the country.
Speaking on Friday on Polotiki, a weekly podcast of News24, Calland said tensions were running “extremely high” on campuses, including the University of Cape Town.
He said while he didn’t excuse any act of criminality he had “great sympathy” for students worried about their future, the cost of fees and whether or not they will be able to afford education next year.
Calland said given the lack of trust in the president’s judgement, one could speculate that there may be an ulterior motive related to the timing of the report’s release.
“Is he in fact trying to encourage tensions and violence? Is that in his interest? …There are many people who now think President Zuma wants to create ferment in the country, to create chaos in order to justify a more draconian response and maybe also to prolong his rule,” Calland said.
He said any further delays in the official government response to the leaked report would “encourage violence, and anguish and unrest on our campuses”.