'Don't use free higher education as political football' - USAf

Students singing ahead of Fees march to Union Buildings. (File, Lerato Sejake, News24)
Students singing ahead of Fees march to Union Buildings. (File, Lerato Sejake, News24)

Cape Town – Stop using the issue of free higher education as a political football.

This was the call Universities South Africa (USAf) made in a strongly-worded statement in the wake of President Jacob Zuma's announcement that free higher education would be made available to students from households that have a combined annual income of R350 000.

READ: Zuma announces free higher education for poor and working class students

"South Africa’s 26 public universities were taken by surprise by the announcement made by President Zuma on December 16, 2017," read the statement by Professor Ahmed Bawa, USAf CEO.

"We have raised our concerns about the timing of that announcement and the absence of a clear implementation strategy, implementation plan and adequate roll-out time for such a significant development in the funding of our public higher education system."

He said, ideally, they would have liked a year to roll out the new system.

"Instead, we have two to three weeks.  We have repeatedly raised our concerns about the use of the student fee issue as a political football. This is not just disingenuous but also opens the way for the issue to be used for purely political purposes as we have just seen."

Minister of Higher Education and Training Hlengiwe Mkhize seemed taken aback as she reacted to the statement on Twitter.

"Trying to figure out what Prof Ahmed Bawa is reported to have said: that the president of the Republic, Pres JG Zuma, was not supposed to announce improved support for the poor and working-class families before his approval. Vice-Chancellors were briefed."

"It is in line with an inclusive agenda to ensure that the poor are not excluded and discriminated against on financial grounds," read a second tweet.

In his New Year's message, EFF leader Julius Malema encouraged former matriculants who passed well and who want to further their education, to report to the academic institution of their choice in 2018.

READ: Malema calls on former matrics to report to academic institutions in 2018

Mkhize tweeted that admission criteria and all relevant conditions apply at all times for financial assistance for the poor and working class.

"Firstly, a student applies to a post-school institution within a stipulated period of time. The acceptance letter is a precondition for funding."

Bawa said USAf is "deeply concerned by the call made by some political leaders for students to simply turn up at universities for enrollment, without having made appropriate prior arrangements for their admission".

"This is unfortunate as it may result in a replay of events with potential to cause injury to students and their families. We recall with deep anxiety the event at the University of Johannesburg in January 2012, which resulted in the tragic death of a parent," reads Bawa's statement.

"We therefore implore all political parties and student leaders to adopt a responsible approach to this new development in the public higher education sector, and to work in concert with the universities in addressing the challenges that may engulf the start of the new academic year in 2018."

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