‘Every time I greet him, I say fee-free higher education funding cannot wait any longer,” says new Higher Education Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize, expressing her awareness of the urgent need to deal with the tertiary funding problems plaguing the country.The statement is also her way of reminding President Jacob Zuma about the strategic importance of tabling a proposed solution, following on from his release on Monday of the Heher Commission report on the feasibility of no-fee tertiary education.For Mkhize, Zuma is the only one who can make a final call on university fees next year.She is asked to reveal what the president has been working on behind the scenes. This, after recent media reports claiming that Zuma’s future son-in-law, Morris Masutha – who is reportedly engaged to the president’s youngest daughter, Thuthukile – has devised a plan that could see various departmental budgets across government slashed to make R40 billion available for the 2018 academic year. “I am aware of the work that is being done by the presidential ministerial fiscus committee and the ministerial committee on higher education and training. The government’s response to the president will come from formal structures, and not individuals,” she says. “We [the department of higher education and training] are a resource to all these high-level consultative meetings.“We have to ensure that all decisions are in line with policies and that they meet the criteria of affordability and sustainability.”As things stand, she has planned further meetings with stakeholders – including students and vice-chancellors who are members of Universities SA – to discuss their concerns.In the past two weeks, she has urged universities to delay announcing fee increases for next year and has appealed to students to remain calm.“We understand that the university community is a bit edgy and nervous. We hope that the president will prioritise this and come back to us,” she said. “We understand student activism, but I do not think that it is okay to adopt strategies that we used against apartheid. We must do our part to avoid disruptions. It is my responsibility not to be defensive. We are looking everywhere [for funding solutions].”Free education pressureMkhize, who is a mother of two girls and a boy, took over the reins at the higher education and training ministry from SA Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande, after he was sacked on October 17. She is familiar with this ministry as she served as Nzimande’s deputy from 2010 to 2012. She says her officials are also examining strategies to improve the efficiency and financial viability of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas). “We do not want to behave like clowns. I have been focusing on Nsfas behind the scenes. We have been looking at systems,” she says, referring to the erroneous R14 million payout made to Walter Sisulu University student Sibongile Mani’s account in June.Mkhize, who holds a BA degree in social work from the University of Zululand and a master’s degree in clinical psychology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, admits that she has “walked into a hot spot to respond to calls for free education” and deal with tensions over the release of the fees commission report.Expressing concern over threats by the ANC-aligned SA Students Congress of a total shutdown at universities if the government does not agree to fund free tertiary education, she says the organisation has requested a meeting with her following the report’s release – to which she has agreed.One of the Heher commission’s key recommendations is that all under- and postgraduate students at public and private universities and colleges, regardless of their family background, be funded through a cost-sharing model of government-guaranteed Income-Contingency Loans, which will be sourced from commercial banks.Mkhize says this approach presents the danger of placing students in a debt trap, and they could end up unable to pay back the money. This, in turn, would affect the desired outcome intended by government: the reduction of unemployment and poverty. She says other options must be considered by the interministerial committees. The private sector is also required to come on board and interact with Nsfas to avoid the problem of “double dipping” students – a situation where some students, particularly top-performing ones, receive funding from various sponsors.She hints that the department’s other priorities include resolving administrative challenges faced by the Technical and Vocational Education and Training colleges as well as the Sector Education and Training Authorities (Setas).Some colleges have been failing to issue qualification certificates to successful students. This situation is being prioritised, says Mkhize. As part of the solution to get Setas properly functional, the minister plans to introduce a process of tracking beneficiaries of Seta programmes to verify whether funds paid to companies providing training services are being delivered and whether learners are using their skills as intended.