Free university education for poor: breakthrough or hollow promise?

16 December 2017 - 12:28 By Timeslive
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ANC president Jacob Zuma. File photo
ANC president Jacob Zuma. File photo
Image: Masi Losi/Sunday Times

President Jacob Zuma's announcement of free tertiary education for certain students is being greeted with cautious optimism.

Zuma said on Saturday that from 2018 eligible SA children of the unemployed‚ social grant recipients‚ parents earning below minimum wage‚ domestic workers‚ farm workers‚ mine workers and entry level civil servants will be able to access public universities and TVET colleges for free.

The president said students from households with a combined annual income of R350‚000 or less will have their TVET college or university studies fully subsidised for first-years in 2018 and fully phased in over five years. There will also be "no tuition fee increment for students from households earning up to R600‚000 a year during the 2018 academic year".

The announcement was widely met with scepticism‚ including from a parliamentary committee.

ANC Youth League president Collen Maine was among a minority who defended the statement. Maine dismissed criticism that it was a political move aimed at swaying votes at the party's elective conference.

"We knew that it was going to happen‚ there was going to be free education next year‚" Maine told BusinessLIVE.

The National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) said the decision was "ground breaking".

The Banking Association of South Africa held a different view.

"This is unfortunately a way of fooling South Africans by adopting unaffordable populist policies in the name of the poor without the ability or even the political will to deliver‚" said Cas Coovadia‚ managing director of the Banking Association of South Africa.

Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh‏ commented: "Free education announcement is ultimately a positive development. Cynical timing‚ but this is a much better policy than the status quo. Historic victory for students. Let’s see how implementation unfolds. #ANC54."

Hlazo Mkandawire‏ also questioned the timing.

"Students: We demand free education. President Zuma: Free higher education is hereby granted. Students again: Why now‚ what is your hidden agenda?"

Paying for the high costs of higher education is worrying many South Africans‚ coming after previous announcements by the Heher commission and that details would be only provided in the February budget by Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba.

Refiloe's Sunflowers‏ @Waviestbaby commented: "This #FreeEducation chat has me so stressed‚ you've announced it yes but you didn't say where the money would come from. So much uncertainty? Your president is playing with our black lives."

@stolewonder shared: "Free education is the greatest 2019 elections strategy ever ... I want to say that we're 'too woke to fall for it' but the majority of the country isn't on Twitter/Facebook so ... well done ANC."

Lebogang Moetjie‏ @LebogangSeladi shared this cynicism‚ stating: "You don't want to be caught up in the excitement of the announcement of free education while January you will be protesting for the implementation plan! The was no money a month ago and now what has changed? They may want to fool a few not the rest!"

Keabetswe‏ @KeabetsweKB thought it could be a poisoned chalice for current Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa‚ bidding this weekend to succeed Jacob Zuma as ANC president.

"Zuma announces free education. Cyril becomes ANC President. Treasury tells him free education is not feasible under their fiscal consolidation commitment. Cyril retracts decision. Voters become irate. ANC purge Cyril. They hold an emergency conference to vote NDZ as president."

@stolewonder shared: "Free education is the greatest 2019 elections strategy ever . . .I want to say that we're 'too woke to fall for it' but the majority of the country isn't on twitter/facebook so... well done ANC."

Seipati Tshabalala‏‚ UCT's 2017 SRC president and founding deputy chairperson of the EFF's student arm‚ commented: "This is not a complete victory. There are terms and conditions we must interrogate. For now comrades‚ we can say the President is taking a step in the right direction."

Celeb Maps Maponyane‏ commented‚ "Sadly the timing reeks of a cynical game of chess‚ nonetheless this a huge victory for current & future students in need of access to tertiary education. The STUDENTS did this. The over-arching question & focus now rests on implementation and affordability."

Zuma's announcement was denounced as "nothing more than reckless politicking" by Belinda Bozzoli‚ a member of parliament from the Democratic Alliance.

Bozzoli said the limited offer of "free education for the poor" would entail an increase in the NSFAS budget by at least 100% - from the current R11bn to about R22bn.

In addition‚ the announcement that university subsidies would be increased from 0.68 of GDP to 1% of GDP over the next five years‚ while welcome‚ "is completely uncosted".

No fee increase for students whose families earn under R600‚000 was also uncosted‚ she said. "In previous years it cost something like R2.5bn."

She said Zuma's move "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.

". . . 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."

Parliament's Select Committee on Education and Recreation welcomed the president's announcement - but also questioned the funding model.

"The far-reaching response by government is a step in the right direction in responding to the pleas of students within the higher education sector. The committee has always held the view that academic exclusion of the poor purely on the basis of affordability undercut South Africa’s democratic dispensation. This response is a step in the right direction to remedying the high levels of inequality in the country‚" said the select committee chairperson‚ Lungelwa Zwane.

She added Zuma's focus on improving TVET colleges‚ including to upskill its lecturers‚ was also welcomed in the context of the skills shortages within sectors necessary to drive economic growth.

"While the Committee welcomes the announcement it will engage the Department of Higher Education and Training on the mechanics‚ implementation plan and funding model to support the rollout. This engagement will happen when Parliament resumes in early 2018."

National Treasury said it was reviewing the proposals: "The proposal will also be considered by the Ministers' Committee on the Budget (MinComBud) and the Presidential Fiscal Committee. Any amendments to existing spending and tax proposals will be announced at the time of the 2018 Budget."

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