Zuma’s free higher education announcement nothing more than reckless politicking

The announcement by President Jacob Zuma that government will introduce fully subsidised free higher education and training for poor and working-class undergraduate students while welcomed, is completely uncosted and therefore must be seen for what it is, playing politics with the hopes and futures of millions of young people.
The statement is a combination of populist politicking, deceptive language, uncosted proposals and one positively dangerous assertion
The President waited until the very end of the year so that he could make a splash at the ANC conference, while students, their families and the institutions they wish to attend anxiously awaited news. Such cheap politicking is appalling. Unsurprisingly, his statement is full of promises, but lacking actual implementation details.
The President has said that full-cost “free” education will be offered to poor and working-class students, students with a family income of less than R350 000. This is nothing new – it is simply a continuation of what the ANC has always said. Students from the “fees must fall” movement will be disappointed.
This limited offer of “free education for the poor” has not been financially feasible. It will inevitably entail an increase in the NSFAS budget by at least 100% – from the current R11bn to about R22bn. In fact, the number of students in this bracket is entirely unknown and this proposal probably entails an even higher number.  It could bring the cost of NSFAS up to R30bn.
Under the President’s new ‘plan’, NSFAS will require a massive expansion to provide funding grants to students from families earning less than R350 000. Major administrative problems have hampered NSFAS this year, with some applicants waiting months for a response. The President proposes that all NSFAS loans be converted to grants, thus rejecting entirely all the work that has been done by Heher, NSFAS and others, into various sorts of loan schemes which would provide the fiscus with some return on its outlay. The scheme will clearly need vastly improved systems to handle the expanded volume of applications.
We welcome the announcement that University subsidies will be increased from 0.68 of GDP to 1% of GDP over the next five years, as it has been something we have fought for over the past several years. However, this increase is completely uncosted.
Furthermore, in the first year of this increase, the Presidency has decreed that the increase goes straight into funding his arbitrary decree that “no fee increase” will need be paid by students whose families earn under R600 000. This too is uncosted. In previous years it cost something like R2.5bn.
The President has also said that TVET fees will be fully subsidised over the full period of study rather than just the first year, which is currently the case, and that TVET student grants will be expanded to include a number of other costs. This is welcome but once again there is no indication that the budget will be able to carry this cost.
The President proposes that investment in infrastructure, particularly student accommodation, will increase – again without any figures; and that the massive problem of student debt will be “addressed by the Department”, without any clear indication as to how this will be addressed.
The further promises of funding for student accommodation – especially at TVETs – sounds pleasing until we remember that the Department of Higher Education (DHET) has no plans or funding in place to address this crucial accommodation shortage. The DHET has admitted that it doesn’t even know how many student accommodation beds are currently available at TVETs.
The DA stands by the three-tiered model for funding that we proposed to the Heher Commission. Our model is designed to keep the system stable, and at the same time to ensure that “missing middle” students are not left behind, while poor students are covered financially.
Under our model, the poorest students would receive loans, convertible to grants upon success, which would cover all their costs. Students in middle-level income bands would qualify for a smaller portion of support, graded depending on their family income. Students who are able to pay their own fees would be required to do so – and certainly not be penalized for doing so.
Lurking within the President’s statement is one line which raises the alarm: a statement that the “hierarchical and autonomous character” of Universities is of great concern to the ANC. This is nothing more than an implicit threat to the constitutionally protected principle of academic freedom and university autonomy.
It must also be said that Higher Education can’t be the only option for students. At this stage, there will be millions of students who won’t be accepted into university. It is therefore critical that we offer our youth other opportunities and we should be investing in internship programs and job-creating programs.
We fear that this statement will cause more harm than good. It makes unsustainable and uncosted offers to students, raises expectations and fails to indicate that the huge bureaucracy needed to implement it is in place. We remain concerned that the start of the academic year of 2018 will entail turmoil and protest, and frustration on the part of students and the institutions that they attend.
If the President wants to get serious about funding Higher Education, he needs to stop making politically expedient statements that he delays for his own benefit. As has become all too familiar, the President has placed his interests above that of South Africans, again.

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