'Free education impossible now'
The state was not a "free for all", said MPs arguing against free higher education. They said it was not practical, too costly and would eat up at least a quarter of the country's gross domestic product if it were implemented.
MPs yesterday discussed the findings of research by the parliamentary budget office, which presented an analysis of the cost of higher education and other funding models to the standing committee on appropriations.
The budget office provides independent advice and analysis to parliament on matters relating to budgets and money bills.
The discussion came as the fees commission sitting in Pretoria considers submissions from various stakeholders, including Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande.
The committee heard that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme recovered only 12% of student loans.
According to the research, paying for all undergraduate enrolments would cost the government more than R250-billion in additional funds in the medium term, or over the next three years.
It found that only 30% of students starting their first year graduate within three years, 56% within five years.
Institutions of higher learning have been hotbeds of violent protest over the past four weeks, with students demanding free and "decolonised" education.
Yesterday, four University of Cape Town students were arrested when protesters clashed with private security guards when they tried to gain access to the library.
People in balaclavas triggered the fire alarm at the chemical engineering faculty and attempted to enter the building. But they were stopped after a tussle with the head of department, Eric van Steen.
At Wits University yesterday about 100 academics and staff who were protesting outside the Great Hall have accused management of subjecting students to "police excesses".
"The minute police come on campus, they don't ask questions, they just spray water and start shooting," said Wits staff member Tumisho Madihlaba.
"When students retaliate to those rubber bullets, they are labelled 'violent'."
Speaking in parliament during a sitting of the standing committee on appropriations, Ahmed Shaik Emam, of the National Freedom Party, said the poor graduating rate was part of the problem, as was the quality of basic education.
"There is this perception that the state is a cash cow; you just get and get. A 12% recovery rate [for student loans] is very low," he said.
"These graduates are supposed to go and get employed so they can start paying [their loan back]. But I don't think there's a will to even do that. [They say]: 'It's not my money; it's state money.'
"I don't personally believe the country is really in a position to be able to provide free education at this point."