Free varsity for the poor?

2012-01-13 00:00

CAPE TOWN — Free tertiary education for indigent students — who qualify academically — may well be on the cards in future.

Yesterday, Higher Education and Training minister Dr Blade Nzimande told reporters his department was investigating the feasibility of such a policy.

It would table a report at the ANC's national policy conference in June.

Nzimande was speaking after unveiling the Green Paper for Post-School Education and Training, which is open for public comment until April.

He was asked how sustainable it was for the government to grant bursaries and study loans to large numbers of very poor students.

Nzimande acknowledged that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme of South Africa (NSFAS) could not meet the demand.

He intimated that the R10 billion that would have been collected through the Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA) could help provide relief.

Then he made the big announcement: "I might as well use this opportunity to announce that the governing party, the ANC, has asked my department to calculate what it would cost to introduce free tertiary education for poor students."

Nzimande said the findings would be submitted to the ANC's national policy conference in June.

He acknowledged that broadening access to tertiary education was the goal, but stressed this was not aimed at the entire tertiary system.

"Each one has to be trained in accordance with his aptitude and ability, in the interest of the country. Those who belong at university, must get that opportunity. Those who must be trained in a trade, must get the opportunity to live out their aptitude …"

Nzimande said the Green Paper identified key challenges facing higher education and training, and set out a path to overcome these.

He noted that a total of three million young people between 18 and 24 were not accommodated in either the education and training system or the labour market.

"This is an appalling waste of human potential and a potential source of serious social instability."

Analyst Moeletsi Mbeki has previously referred to this grouping as a ticking timebomb and warned it could even give rise to South Africa's own Tunisa Moment — a reference to the popular uprising of the unemployed in Tunisia last year.

Nzimande said that his department was looking into the establishment of community colleges to cater for these youth, most of whom dropped out of primary school and are considered unemployable.

Nzimande said the department was well aware of the shortage of space at universities and institutions of higher learning.

This was why the Green Paper proposed a massive expansion of the higher education system.

This included a greater role for further education and training colleges and a post school system that was responsive to the economy.

The aim was to raise university enrolments to 1 500 000 (a projected participation rate of 23%) as opposed to the 2011 enrolments of 899 120 (a 16% participation rate).

Other key points in the paper include:

•Support will be given to previously disadvantaged universities, especially those in rural areas, to improve their financial viability as well as the quality of their teaching and research.

•An aim to have 4 000 000 enrolments (approximately a 60% participation rate) in colleges or other post-school institutions.

•An expanded Further Education and Training (FET) colleges sector for the development of artisanal and other mid-level skills for the economy.

•The Green Paper makes proposals to ensure pathways that allow students to move on to university education after completing their vocational qualifications if they wish to do so.

•The paper proposes strengthened collaboration between the private and public sector and between the three spheres of government in an aim to deliver skills that are responsive to the economy.

KwaZulu-Natal FET colleges were excited about the prospects of the paper, but felt that the issue of space needed to be dealt with urgently.

Umgungundlovu FET spokesperson Lynn Horan said that although they started registration on Wednesday, they continued to have a huge turnout of prospective students. "We are currently in talks with management on how to accommodate the additional students," she said.

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