Is new plan to help poor students reconciliation or political expediency?

Treasury will have to find the money and universities the capacity

07 February 2018 - 15:11 By AHMED C BAWA
Protests on South African campuses have led to a new plan to enable about 90% of South African families to send young people to universities and colleges.
Protests on South African campuses have led to a new plan to enable about 90% of South African families to send young people to universities and colleges.
Image: Alon Skuy

South Africa's universities and their communities have been in a state of uncertainty, instability, even turmoil, and notwithstanding that we had a successful academic year, concerns remain about the sustainability of the system.

We must return to a level of stability that allows the system and the institutions to look forward with some confidence that they will be properly supported, that their students are properly funded and that as social institutions vital to so many of our national and global projects, they will receive the funding they require to play the role we expect of them.

A set of policy options flowing from the fees commission chaired by Judge Jonathan Heher has finally been produced by the president's office - on December 16, the Day of Reconciliation.

It is also the day on which the ANC began one of its most important elective conferences in the history of the organisation and our nation. We wonder whether this is an act of reconciliation or of political expediency. Having said this, we are pleased that the statement has been released.

We concurred with the Heher commission's understanding that in terms of the constitution, higher education has to be made progressively available to all South Africans, irrespective of their financial backgrounds. It is not tenable in a democracy such as ours to have higher education that is unaffordable to most South Africans.

A fundamental purpose of higher education is its critical role in social mobility in the context of deep and stubborn poverty, high unemployment and growing inequalities.

The state's intention to provide full cost-of-study grants to students in the technical and vocational education and training sector at the beginning of 2018 is probably the most important part of this statement. Now the challenge will be to work out how best to address the issues of quality of learning/teaching, their articulation to industry and other employers, and the general student experience at the TVET colleges.

This must include a more proactive, decisive approach to building a highly articulated post-school education and training system with emphasis on the properly constructed pathways for students to migrate through the different subsectors, from universities into the TVET colleges, and from the colleges into the universities.

Students from about 90% of South African households will have the opportunity of higher education

While the proper functioning of the TVET colleges is important for the growth of the economy and to help open new channels to address employment, the sustainability of higher education is tied to the proper functioning of the TVET colleges.

We recognise the vital importance of righting what is an inverted pyramid by ensuring the number of students going to the TVET sector is larger than those going to universities.

The raising of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme cap of family incomes from R122,000 to R350,000, addressing the needs of students from poor and working-class backgrounds, and the change from a student loan system to a student bursary system, are massive shifts in creating a more affordable higher education system.

What this means is that students from about 90% of South African households will have the opportunity of higher education if they are admitted to one of our universities.

Cringingly, there are concerns.

The first is that we hope the Treasury, and the state more generally, are convinced of the sustainability of this model. It would be disastrous if, two or three years from now, it was decided that what had been adopted in December 2017 was unsustainable. That would throw the system into chaos, uncertainty and new rounds of instability.

The second is the idea that this model is only available to first-level students in 2018. Senior students will expect that they, too, will benefit and this is likely to cause anguish and anxiety among those students at the beginning of 2018.

The third is that the higher education system is operating at the edge of capacity. It has to be made clear that the capacity to grow is restricted by the available plant, the student-staff ratio, the size of classes and so on. There would have to be major investment in physical and human infrastructure for the enrolment to increase.

And fourth is that we are concerned about the efficacy, efficiency and student-centredness of the national financial aid system.

We are making progress in developing new approaches to this as the Department of Higher Education and Training, NSFAS and Universities South Africa meet on a regular basis to understand how best to design a financial aid ecosystem that works well for students. Unless this is accomplished, the start of the 2018 academic year will be as chaotic as previous years.

The fees commission's recommendation that the subsidy to the universities in the form of the block grant should be shifted from 0.68% to 1% of GDP has been adopted as a five-year trajectory by the state. This is recognition that higher education is chronically underfunded and has been so for the past 10 years or so.

The impetus for the national campaign for zero fees came from the fact that tuition fees were growing at a rate above the consumer price index. This was a knock-on effect of the subsidy per student being in decline for several years.

I am aware that the contents of this statement do not meet the needs of student activist bodies which continue to demand free higher education for all. This is the beginning of a roadmap for the funding of students and the sustainability and growth of higher education.

We cautiously welcome this statement from the president's office. We wish there had been consultation and discussion leading up to it and so we trust that the Treasury and the Department of Higher Education and Training are convinced of the sustainability of the model.

That about 90% of South African households can now afford higher education is no mean achievement. Our challenge is to make it work.

• Bawa is CEO of Universities South Africa