While President Jacob Zuma’s announcement on 15 December of ‘fully subsidised free higher education and training for poor and working-class South African undergraduate students’ has been welcomed by Universities SA CEO Ahmed Bawa (SowetanLIVE), the country’s state-run universities ‘would really have liked a year to roll it out’. Instead, they were given ‘only … two or three weeks’ to implement a model some universities are concerned may not be ‘sustainable’. A Presidency media statement on the ‘policy intervention’ expresses confidence that it will extend fully subsidised free higher education to eligible young people ‘from well over 90% of South African households’, notes Pam Saxby for Legalbrief Policy Watch.
This is noting that the term ‘poor and working-class student’ now applies to anyone ‘currently enrolled’ at a technical and vocational education and training (TVET) college or university whose household is ‘South African’ – with a combined annual income of R350 000 or less when the 2018 academic year begins. Since ‘currently enrolled’ tends to imply that beneficiaries of the new policy should have been enrolled by 15 December when it was announced, some confusion around its interpretation may arise. This is especially given that the policy will be ‘phased in over five years’, beginning with ‘students in their first year of study’ at one of the country’s public universities.
While Zuma’s statement makes it clear that grant funding for qualifying students at state-run TVET colleges will cover the ‘full cost of study’ – ‘including tuition fees, prescribed study material, meals, accommodation and/or transport’ – it is less explicit about grants allocated to eligible students at SA’s public universities. However, ‘there will be no tuition fee increment for students from households earning up to R600 000 a year during the 2018 academic year’. This appears to apply only to universities. According to the statement, the implications of this move for university budgets will be offset by a ‘substantial increase’ in government subsidies – from 0.68% to 1% of GDP, which will immediate, but phased in ‘over the next five years’.
Muddying the waters somewhat is a reference to ‘packages already allocated to existing National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students in their further years of study’ being ‘converted from loans to 100% grants, effective immediately’. Nevertheless, given its ‘complexity’, ‘the management of NSFAS debt’ will only be ‘dealt with’ ‘after due diligence’ has been ‘undertaken’ by the Departments of Higher Education and Training, Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation and National Treasury ‘to determine the quantum of funding required’. Meanwhile, ‘government will further invest’ in the TVET sector by providing training and development opportunities for existing staff, recruiting ‘additional qualified staff’ and improving college infrastructure.
According to SowetanLIVE, ‘details about the funding’ envisaged and its implications for the fiscus will feature in Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s Budget speech next month. While the Presidency statement spells out recommendations in the Heher Commission report for financing each sub-sector of the post-school education and training system, it does not explicitly commit government to adopting them. Instead, it expresses confidence that ‘the proposed funding model, especially the phasing-in approach’, will ‘ensure’ improved access to education by ‘allowing’ government to ‘gradually’ introduce ‘fully subsidised free higher education for poor and working-class students, year-on-year, in a fiscally sustainable way’.
Higher Education and Training Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize has since confirmed that the reforms concerned will be ‘rolled out’ at ‘a measured pace, … reprioritising funding within existing budgets’. This is noting that ‘the weak economy, falling tax revenue growth and rising debt have put significant pressure on … public finances … (limiting) the space for any new policy commitments’.
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