How Serious Is The Government’s Plan For Free Education?

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When former president Jacob Zuma announced the government’s plan for free higher education in 2017, the hope and relief were palpable. It all came crumbling down when students continued to protest over the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) allowances, the lack of student accommodation, and their overwhelming historical debt. Using comments made in the State of the Nation (SONA) and the budget speech, here’s how the government plans to fix the free education rollout.

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President Cyril Ramaphosa’s SONA

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered the SONA on February 7 amidst widespread university protests. The protests tragically culminated in the death of Durban University of Technology student Mlungisi Madonsela who died at the hospital after being shot on campus during protests.

In his speech, Ramaphosa said the free higher education plan had been introduced for qualifying first-year students. “Thanks to this initiative, links have been re-established with all institutions, and institution heads and student leaders have played a critical role in communicating with students,” he said.

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Free education is being phased in over a five-year period until all undergraduate students who qualify in terms of the criteria can benefit, Ramaphosa said.

Addressing Nsfas, which has had a number of problems over the years, Ramaphosa said: “Stabilising the business processes of the Nsfas will also be a priority in the coming year so that it is properly capacitated to carry out its critical role in supporting eligible students.”

Tito Mboweni’s Budget Speech

Fully subsidised education and training for the poor is the government’s flagship higher education intervention. Over the medium term government will spend R111.2 billion to ensure that 2.8 million deserving students from poor and working class families obtain their qualifications at universities and TVET colleges.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni addressed the accommodation issue saying the government is working student accommodation. This announcement formed part of the budget allocations to infrastructure including a wastewater treatment facility works in the Vaal and a solar water geyser programme. There was an allocation of R625 to the Development Bank of Southern Africa, the Government Technical Advisory Centre and the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission for these projects, Mboweni said.

Tito’s Budget Speech, On Education, Women, The Poor

SAUS is happy with the government’s response, but…

The South African Union of Students (SAUS), the umbrella body for Student Representative Councils, is pleased with the government’s impending plans for free education but wary of the slow pace of implementation.

“We are happy that the government is making strides in ensuring that the poor are able to attend school. We are not happy about the pace of implementation in terms of the bureaucratic structure of government,” SAUS secretary general Lwandile Mstolo said in an interview with The Daily Vox.

Mstolo said students currently face a number of challenges at the various South African universities. These challenges include the delays in Nsfas payouts and the lack of student housing in terms of the university residences.

“If you look at the protests on the street, after Fees Must Fall, there was a commitment from government to give free education to the poor. But there are still those who are forgotten, the missing middle,” Mstolo said.

In response to these demands, SAUS had called for a national shutdown on February 7. The SAUS later called off their shutdown.

Mstolo said universities had not heeded the call of free education and have made accessing it difficult for students. “We are saying government must implement stricter policies when it comes to universities,” he said.

Usaf is pleased with the budget, but still has concerns

Ahmed Bawa, CEO at Universities South Africa (Usaf), told The Daily Vox the organisation is pleased that the funding of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has been extended. Bawa said it shows there is sustainability built into the system.

One of the central issues facing higher education institutions is the lack of adequate accommodation for students. Bawa said it’s good that there has been some commitment in the budget to deal with the issue. “The third issue is there hasn’t been a decline in the subsidy levels. That’s positive especially with this new increase in subsidy over a five year period that will take the contribution of the state to subsidies from 0.8% to 1% of GDP,” he said.

Bawa said there are some critical outstanding issues that needs dealing with. Those include no support system for the missing middle and historic debt. “We don’t have a system in place for the missing middle. That’s a big issue which needs to be resolved,” Bawa said. With historic debt, Bawa said while the state indicated its commitment to deal with the historic debt of students covered by Nsfas, it’s a small part of the problem.

During the 2017 budget, the allocations for higher education came from losses in the accommodation allocation. Bawa said departments like the departments of science and technology and basic education and the national skills funds are likely to take the burden of addressing the free education bursaries. “The budget of the national research foundation has been severely cut. Instead of addressing one urgent problem at the same time [it is] potentially creating crises in other areas,” Bawa said.

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Despite the consolidation of the free education bursary system in the budget, there was nothing new about higher education, Bawa said. Taking into account the challenges facing the state-owned enterprises and other parts of the economy, Bawa said this consolidation is important.

Judging by the response from both SAUS and Usaf, while the government has taken important steps toward implementing free education it continues to ignore the structural issues of historic debt and the missing middle. Government still has work to do, and time will tell how successful it will be with implementation.

Featured image by Rumana Akoob.

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