The money has to come from somewhere - Heher on Zuma fees annoucement

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)

Johannesburg – The announcement of fee-free education for poor and working-class students has been welcomed by universities and retired judge Jonathan Heher, who headed a commission on the feasibility of that outcome.

This follows President Jacob Zuma announcing a wide range of changes related to tertiary education funding on Saturday morning.

The definition of poor and working-class students were those whose combined family income did not exceed R350 000 per annum.

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

Heher happy but reserved

Speaking to News24 on Saturday, Heher said he was happy that a number of recommendations put forward by the commission had been adopted by the president.

He said the announcement that funding would be increased to include stipends for books, food, travel and accommodation, as well as an overall shift to provide more funding to tertiary institutions was positive, but he could not provide informed comment on the matter.
"The money has to come from somewhere, and until we are told where it is coming from, I cannot comment on it in an informed manner," he said.  

READ: Zuma's fee free call noble, but can SA afford it? Gigaba says wait till Feb

Universities happy with announcement

CEO of Universities SA, Ahmed Bawa, which represents the 23 public universities in South Africa, said the announcement was a mixed bag, but overall positive.

"We are very pleased that the issue of critical underfunding of tertiary institutions has been recognised and is being addressed," he said, in relation to the president’s announcement that subsidies for tertiary institutions would increase from the current 0.68% of GDP to 1% over the next five years.

Bawa said they were also extremely thankful that the government had adopted the idea of grants and not loans, which was a proposal that they had put forward to the Heher Commission.

READ: Zuma’s “grants not loans” for tertiary education flies in the face of Heher Commission

"We are extremely pleased about the recognition that one cannot have higher education that is not affordable. This means that young students who have the potential, and who have been admitted, but who did not have the financial means, can now gain access to study further," he said.

He said the universities also welcomed the increase of the threshold for qualifying students whose combined family income does not exceed R350 000 per annum.

Some concerns

Bawa said there were three main areas of concern that Universities SA were worried about.

The first was the long term sustainability of the subsidies, as there had been no indication yet as to where the funding would come from.

He said they were also concerned that the new funding model only applied to first year students for 2018, which he felt would not sit well with other students.

Further, Bawa said there had been no consultation with them between the release of the Heher Commission Report and the announcement by Zuma.

"We were hoping that there would be some round table discussions where issues such as the implementation could be discussed, but no such meetings have taken place," he said.

University fee increases unaffected

Bawa said universities had already been in discussions with the Minister of Higher Education, Hlengiwe Mkhize, around fee increases for universities for 2018.

Bawa said universities had indicated that they were factoring in an 8% fee increase for the financial year, and that the department had made provision to cover the increases for qualifying students.

"While the increase will reflect on the student's fees, the increased amount will be covered by a government subsidy for those who qualify," he said.

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