#FeesMustFall: Zuma goes for broke

Johannesburg - A national institute, entrusted with producing more black professors, has become the first casualty of President Jacob Zuma's plans to raise funds for his much-awaited plan for free higher education next year.

This is part of a wide-scale redirection of state funds from across departments to find R40bn for student funding for one year.

A letter addressed to the chief executive of the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS), which City Press has seen, shows that the organisation which coordinates scholarships, research and ethical practice in the social sciences field, has had its budget cut by R35.6m.

This means that while the money could be diverted to fund Zuma’s free higher education plan, many other doctoral students who rely on the institute will lose their scholarships.

Although City Press has published the contents of the Heher Commission report on the feasibility of no-fee higher education, Zuma is yet to publicly release its findings and announce a course of action.

- EXCLUSIVE: Fees won't fall

In his address to the National Council of Provinces on Thursday, Zuma said the Heher report was “under consideration” and would be released as soon as it was finalised.

“The Interministerial Committee for Higher Education Funding and the Presidential Fiscal Committee are assisting the president to process the report,” he said.

The main finding of the Heher report was that free education was not feasible.

Instead, the report proposed an income-contingent loan funding system.

But Zuma is determined to announce no fees for students, even if it is for only one year.

Government officials estimate that R40bn would be needed each year to cover students’ tuition fees alone.

Government not in favour of a 'doing-nothing scenario'

Zuma’s plan to source an interim fund for free higher education in 2018 was met with enthusiasm in Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s office as senior officials believed it was about implementing ANC policy.

Government officials tasked with considering the funding said the government was not in favour of a “do-nothing scenario”.

Although the commission based its findings on the information before it, that did not stop government from trying to find an alternative approach, said a senior official.

“It is about assisting the African child because education has been made a commodity in South Africa and reserved for the super-rich,” said the official.

“It is a luxury and it is made deliberately unaffordable, and we need to educate the African child. That is the burden that we carry.

“So, do you condemn your people to poverty or what?

"We have to let it happen. We cannot fight this thing. It is not corruption. At least the government says: ‘We are going to look at the money to finance this thing, even if we are phasing it in.’”

City Press has learnt that among the options under consideration are redirecting funds from underspending programmes; conducting a 5% “shave” across the board on all programmes; and pushing some infrastructure projects that can be delayed into “the outer years”.

Budget deficit 

Among the factors that will influence the final decision, the official said, is whether the budget deficit will increase.

“How does it affect our people? Will it allow for economic growth or will it have a negative impact on the prospects to grow the economy?” he said.

“It is a comprehensive and sober process, and the cynicism line will not work.”

However, diverting funds from the NIHSS is seen as defeating the very same government agenda to transform the skewed demographics at universities, where more than 80% of professors are white.

This is a battle that former higher education minister Blade Nzimande has waged.

Last year, a task team was appointed to look into what was holding back the creation of black professors.

NIHSS head Sarah Mosoetsa confirmed its budget was cut from R173m to R137m and that its funding would continue to decline in 2018/19 and 2019/20.

“R35m is not significant,” she said.

“But R35m for an entity that is running on a budget of less than R200m is significant. It is significant [because of] what the institute has been able to produce.

“It is a pity that again in South Africa we are making choices about how the humanities do not matter.”

Bankrupt

Mosoetsa, whose institute was established in 2013 to increase the number of black PhD students, suggested that not enough had been done to consider the effect of slashing its budget.

The institute’s research funding has been cut by more than 80%.

While Mosoetsa supported free education, she said it should not happen at others’ expense.

“There is an English phrase about robbing Peter to pay Paul. That is what is happening here.”

The institute has funded more than 400 PhD students in three years, 45 of whom graduated last week.

“We have been complaining a lot in this democracy about how universities are lily white and male; that there is an ageing cohort of academics even in the humanities and social sciences,” she said.

“We also know that before you become a professor you need to have your honours, master’s and PhD – and it takes at least 10 years for you to get a PhD. It takes another 10 years for you to become a professor.

“So, we started three years ago to open the pipeline of producing the next generation.

“But just as we start seeing the results ... we get our budget cut.”

Ripple effect on NSF

Mosoetsa said the National Skills Fund (NSF), which funds her organisation, explained that its budget was cut because of “financial constraints”.

“Its budget was cut by R8.2bn. Who took that money? Treasury? For what? I am not sure whether it was for the current fees intervention or previously, to cover funding for #FeesMustFall in previous years.

“But either way, the NSF is bankrupt. That is what I know and that is what we are told.”

City Press understands that Zuma’s no-fee plan will have a ripple effect on an already broke NSF.

In May, Treasury wrote a letter advising the NSF to review a number of projects and contractual commitments in line with its available resources.

Treasury also directed that management implement a turnaround strategy and review its income-generation options to help raise its own funds.

Mosoetsa added: “If you say free higher education, what happens to the infrastructure at universities? ... You need to invest in the infrastructure, internet access, libraries, books, etc. You cannot just bring students into universities and expect them to survive.”

The institute will now have to be restructured, which will lead to job losses.

Mosoetsa said Zuma should instead cut jobs in his bloated Cabinet.

“It is sad that ... we have to let go of certain people.

"It’s just painful. It is also going to be absolutely painful if we cannot fund more PhDs in the system,” she said, adding that instead of producing 1 000 PhDs, the institute will only be able to afford to fund 600.

Nzimande bypassed 

It is understood that the fees report was among the issues discussed at the tripartite alliance’s political council three weeks ago, which marked the first time that Nzimande came face-to-face with Zuma after he was axed.

City Press understands that at the council, SA Communist Party leaders confronted Zuma about bypassing Nzimande and not giving him a copy of the Heher Commission report, allegedly on the wisdom of an inexperienced outsider – the president’s alleged future son-in-law, Morris Masutha (28).

City Press learnt that only three people had the Heher report: Zuma, the director-general in the presidency Dr Cassius Lubisi, and Masutha.

Those in ANC circles raised concerns about Zuma ramming ahead with his free education plan despite fiscal constraints.

Furthermore, free education would not be a once-off expenditure.

Zuma is also eyeing the bankrupt NSF as well as the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), among others.

The sentiment was that taking money from the UIF would cripple the fund, given the many retrenchments in the mining sector.

The ANC national policy conference in July mandated government to come up with creative measures to address the plight of poor students who cannot afford tertiary education, even if it meant funding would be gradually phased in.

University fees have increased annually by an average of 8% a year.

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