#FeesMustFall: Who gets 0% in 2017?

2016-09-25 06:00
 Ahmed Bawa

Ahmed Bawa

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The government’s promise to fund the university fee increases of the poor and “missing middle” this year will probably cover at least 80% of the national student population, says Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities SA (USAf).

The body has estimated that the government’s undertaking could cover up to 80% of students and cost about R2.5 billion.

“We have set up a task team to help us get to the [exact] number [of affected students]. We don’t know yet, but I would hazard a guess that it’s 80% of students,” Bawa told City Press this week.

“If you go to rural universities such as Fort Hare, Venda or Zululand, it would cover the vast majority, so we are talking primarily about the urban universities [where students will pay increases themselves].”

At these urban universities, approximately 20% of students are from families that are too rich for the concession announced by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, Bawa said.

“My guess is that it will cost in the region of R2.5 billion [to cover students from poor families].”

This is similar to the cost of the countrywide 0% increase granted last year to diffuse the original wave of #FeesMustFall protests.

However, that is recurring with a compensatory grant of about R2.6 billion already budgeted for next year as well, before the new concession kicks in.

There is, however, one important difference to the previous across-the-board 0% increase of last year, said Bawa. This time, the intervention by the department of higher education and training has no new subsidy for residence charges, only tuition fees.

The Council for Higher Education said only time would tell how many students would enjoy Nzimande’s concession. The council is a statutory body that advises Nzimande on policy.

“It’s difficult to be exact on [the number of students covered], as we don’t have data on parents’ incomes,” said the council’s director of monitoring and evaluation, Denyse Webbstock.

“Thanks to statistics from the SA Revenue Service (Sars), we know that there are roughly 500 000 assessed individual taxpayers in the country who earn more than R500 000 per annum, and at least 200 000 of them earn more than R750 000.

“Only a proportion of those will have children at university, certainly not more than 200 000 above the threshold. We’ve looked at a variety of data sources, including Statistics SA’s household surveys, but there really is no way to come up with a reliable figure, as there is no definitive link between household income and households with currently enrolled students,” she said.

She said the true numbers would be known once the system had been rolled out, as it would generate its own statistics.

Webbstock said that the department of higher education and training, which did not respond to queries, also estimated that between 70% and 80% of students fall under the R600 000 annual household income threshold.

“That would mean about 700 000 to 800 000 of the roughly 1 million [tertiary students],” she said.

However, the mechanism that will get used to actually administer this policy is uncertain.

USAf, representing the universities, is already talking to both Sars and the banking sector about ways to practically police the concession and ensure students are properly classified, Bawa said.

The solution will be an automated system that matches students’ ID numbers to records at Sars or the banks to verify household income. Software will be developed for universities, he said.

USAf hoped that the department will clarify the system for administering the concession by the end of October this year – in time for next year’s intake of students.

Nzimande’s announcement sparked renewed protests at various campuses by students still holding out for free education.

A presidential commission is currently working on possibilities for a new university funding system and is expected to present its findings by July next year.

“This is a temporary solution,” Bawa emphasised, suggesting that everyone should at least wait to see what the commission comes up with.

A new university funding system could be in place by the end of 2018.

USAf itself has suggested two alternative proposals. One is that universities get more grants, while their students get more student loans through innovations in funding the “missing middle”.

The other is a “fee-free” model where fees are covered by another funding mechanism that might include graduate tax.

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