Govt can cover 0% fee hike - political economist

Johannesburg - The South African government can redistribute parts of the state fiscus - or possibly defer certain payments - to fund the 0% increase in university fees next year, a political economist said on Tuesday.

Senior research fellow at think-tank Trade Collective and political economist Liepollo Lebohang Pheko told News24 that government could redistribute loans going to Eskom or SAA to pay for the reported R2.6bn shortfall in higher education funding due to a freeze in fees.

"They can also try to engage the private sector, even though I would like to insist that it isn't the role of the private sector to provide education for people, just [as] in the same way it is not the role of the private sector to provide healthcare," Pheko said.

"The State needs to have the basic provision [and] when people want to go private that should be an extra option. There has to be accessible basic healthcare, basic education and higher education."

Government could also partner with individuals and large corporates in the private sector in the immediate term, but looking long term there needs to be a plan to figure out the role and status of universities in South Africa.

The 0% fee increase for 2016 was announced by President Jacob Zuma on Friday at the Union Buildings after more than a week of student protests on campuses across South Africa against rising university fees, among other issues such as the outsourcing of workers.

The protests were sparked at Wits University in Johannesburg two weeks ago after the institution announced a 10.5% increase in fees for 2016. The protests spread across the country, culminating in Zuma's announcement in Pretoria.

SA universities 'unique'

Pheko said part of the conundrum regarding universities in South Africa is unlike others around the world [where] there is really no notion of private universities versus public universities.

"Countries like the United States, Nigeria, Kenya, if you want to bring it closer to home, India, Brazil, most countries have one or the other, except for the UK, most of their institutions are old institutions," she said.

"What we have is really old, privileged institutions like your Wits, your Rhodes, your Stellenbosch, formerly white. Then you have the rest, your colloquially called 'bush universities' for African people," Pheko said.

South Africa has not been able to harmonise and rationalise what the role of the State is in subsiding universities, which all had very different histories and needs, and what role the State has in governing these institutions.

"There needs to be some kind of a policy dialogue and thinking [about] whether universities are entirely independent entities, at liberty to put up fees at their own discretion, change the curriculum at their own discretion, or whether the State needs to intervene and [if so] the extent it must intervene," Pheko said.

The protests in the past two weeks have illustrated the importance of this dialogue, indicating universities cannot be just autonomous entities, she said.

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