Government wants to regulate university fees

Citing costs having escalated to the point of unaffordability, education minister pledges to change the institutional autonomy decree

In the wake of national student protests regarding university registration fees, the clearance of historic debt, accommodation and other issues, the department of higher education and training wants to regulate tuition fees at universities.

If this move succeeds, it will be a victory for those advocating fee-free higher education.

On Friday, Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor told City Press on the sidelines of a media briefing in Pretoria that a legal framework was on the cards to regulate tuition fees at 26 public universities in the country.

The changes, set to come into effect next year, will eventually do away with an autonomy decree, which allows universities to determine their own fees.

The autonomy of universities was among the points contested during the 2017 commission of inquiry into the feasibility of fee-free higher education, which was chaired by retired judge Jonathan Heher.

The commission was appointed by former president Jacob Zuma following violent #FeesMustFall and #OutsourcingMustFall protests, which took place at historically white universities in 2016.

The commission’s report made various recommendations, including suggesting a way to obtain funding through a cost-sharing model of government guaranteed income-contingency loans sourced from commercial banks.

However, in December 2017, at the ANC’s national elective conference in Nasrec, Johannesburg, Zuma announced that government – through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) – would subsidise students from poor and working-class households with a combined annual income of up to R350 000. This would be phased in over five years, starting with the 2018 first-year intake.

Pandor said having regulatory legislation for university fees was necessary because fees had escalated to levels that were unaffordable for the poor.

She said the reason advanced by universities for why they had relied on tuition fees for so long was because government was not improving their block grant subsidy.

“Now that this has begun to improve, and government has undertaken that within five years it will be providing 1% of gross domestic product to the higher education sector – and, in particular, to universities – universities have room to relook at the tuition fees they charge.

“So, we said that in order to assist that process, we must develop a regulatory framework because the fees have now got to a level where they have become unaffordable for most families in our country. We cannot allow this to continue even where more resources are provided.”

Pandor said a process was under way to develop the regulatory framework and that government was consulting with Universities SA, an organisation representing 26 university vice-chancellors.

Minister of Higher Education Naledi Pandor Picture: Lindile Mbontsi

Pandor said they were also looking at different models used by other countries.

“There are countries that set uniform tuition fees across their systems. We do not know if that will be the route to go.

“Some countries have set uniform fees per discipline for engineering, or medicine, or the humanities. We have gathered a lot of the data and we are ready to develop the regulatory framework this year, and begin the process of public consultation on the actual draft. We would like to see implementation by next year.”

However, in response to calls for universities to insource cleaners, security guards, gardeners and other workers, Pandor said it was not government’s role to run the operational aspects of a university.

“I cannot tell them to employ two or five academics. That would fall outside the provisions of the Higher Education Act. But we can provide subsidies or make a grant available. And, if we improve that grant, we believe other cost elements can be looked at, including one of the highest costs – tuition.”

She said universities would have to decide on insourcing according to their means.

Pandor cautioned against imposing demands on universities that would make it impossible to have a proper, functioning higher education sector in the country.

“What we want in South Africa is a quality higher education sector. If we expect universities to do everything, we will no longer have a higher education system. It will just be destroyed. So, we all have to be balanced in our approach.

“Our duty as a government is to ensure that we pursue equity and support, in particular to the most vulnerable, who have not enjoyed opportunities before. But within that, we then have leaders appointed to institutions whose obligation is to run the day-to-day business,” Pandor said.

Friday’s media briefing was organised following last week’s call by the SA Union of Students (Saus) for a national shutdown of universities until all its demands were met. The union represents the interests of student representative councils.

During violent protests last week, a 21-year-old Durban University of Technology student, Mlungisi Madonsela, was shot and later died at a local hospital.

Pandor has since urged universities to hire security companies with well-trained guards who comply with the law. She has also called on students to consider the nature of their protests.

“It is important that young people are safe and protected, but it is vital that we respect everybody’s right to life and that we have peace on our campuses,” Pandor said.

By Friday, only five universities reported that their campuses were affected by Saus’ call, but said most of the students’ grievances were being addressed.

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