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Sourcing extra funding for university students is like 'robbing Peter to pay Paul', says Nzimande

18 March 2021 - 16:08 By unathi nkanjeni
Higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande. File photo.
Higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande. File photo.
Image: Kopano Tlape/GCIS

Taking money from unemployed youths to fund university students is not a feasible idea, says higher education minister Blade Nzimande.

He was briefing parliament's portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology amid the ongoing fees protests by students.

This week, students from the country's universities have been protesting against financial exclusion.

They are demanding, among other things, to be cleared of all historical debt, allowed to register and that there be no financial and academic exclusion and a solid plan for missing middle student funding.

Missing middle students” refers to those who have an annual household income of more than R350,000 but lower than R600,000 and do not qualify for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding.

Nzimande said NSFAS had a shortfall of over R5bn for university students for this year and this was due to the number of new students and applicants. He said because of the protest demands, his department will propose a R3.09bn deduction to give to the universities.

He said the deduction will have an effect on “important grants”.

“We are going to be taking R2.49bn from very important grants that we give to the universities. We then also are taking R500m — half a billion rand — from TVET infrastructure, which was mainly meant to build news residences for TVET colleges,” said Nzimande.

“R100m is no big deal, it is money we saved from goods and services because of the lockdown — it is OK we didn't spend this money. Then we have taken R3.3bn from [the] National Skills Fund (NSF).”

Nzimande said the money taken from the NSF will hinder the process of skills development and training which would benefit millions of unemployed youth in the country.

“The implications of taking this money means we are largely taking money from unemployed.

“In many ways, we are robbing Peter to pay Paul. I want to be honest with that because the country has a challenge.”

He agreed SA needed university students and it needs to increase black and women university graduates in the country.

“I'm personally a firm champion and believer that we must increase support for university students, but at the same time, we must not lose sight of the fact that they constitute less than 5% of the university students of the total youth of our country.

“We have a huge youth of about 3.5 to 4 million of young people who are not in employment and training, which the NSF in the main is targeting.”

Earlier this week, Nzimande said his department was “not in a financial position” to support the tertiary institutions in clearing student debt.

The minister said the department was aware of students whose families could not keep up with fee payments and those who had been affected by the pandemic.

“However, institutions also have to remain financially sustainable to continue to operate effectively, and financial decisions are made at the level of university councils.

“The historic debt of NSFAS qualifying students is being addressed through a process between NSFAS and institutions. NSFAS-qualifying students with historic debt are able to register when they sign an acknowledgment of debt (AOD) form, while the process is under way.