Johannesburg - Tension between students and universities is heading for boiling point after the department of higher education and training decided to allow tertiary institutions to determine their own fee increases for next year.
City Press can confirm that the department will allow university councils to determine their own fee hikes for 2017.
A senior executive in the department, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told City Press: “We won’t determine for them what to charge. We don’t have the legal authority to do so. They must be guided by their councils. The law does not empower us to determine what universities should charge. We can only guide them.”
Until now, students across the country have made it clear that they will resist any attempts by government and universities to increase fees. Last year, students shut down campuses for weeks and forced government to implement a 0% fee increase across the board.
Another senior department official told City Press that vice-chancellors were demanding a minimum additional income of 8% for 2017.
“But Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande wants it to be capped at 6%. I think the minister must just give in to the 8%. There is very little difference between his 6% and the vice-chancellors’ 8%,” the official said.
“In any case, students don’t want any increment, so it matters little to them if it is 6% or 8%.”
Both officials made it clear that fee increases, particularly for the wealthy, were certain. They said talks now centred on how those hikes would be implemented.
“But the rich must pay,” said the senior executive.
Last month, Treasury’s budget office head, Michael Sachs, told the commission of inquiry into higher education funding that the country had no more money to give universities. Money would have to be redirected from other needy departments, such as the health department, as well as from the budget set aside for the National Health Insurance scheme. Sachs added that drastic adjustments had to be made when last year’s no hike in fees policy was announced.
Two weeks ago, City Press reported that President Jacob Zuma instructed Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and Nzimande to find the money to accommodate the 0% fee increase for students for next year. Two senior government officials said Zuma told Gordhan he would have to reprioritise his budget.
“The president said the finance minister must go back and see where he can get money for the fee freeze. Nzimande was clear that some sort of fee was necessary, or universities were going to collapse,” said a senior higher education and training department official at the time.
“The president insisted that they look for the money and see what they could do,” he said.
A vice-chancellor from one of the country’s top universities, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told City Press this week that the vice-chancellors agreed not to “settle for anything less than an additional 8% in our annual income”.
“That could come out of fee increments or subsidies from the state. I heard that they are looking at subsidising the poor,” he said.
The 8%, he said, was made up of 6.3% inflation and 1.7% “for library stock and journals, which we buy with the US dollar and the euro”.
“Last year, we insourced 1 568 workers, and that cost us about R120 million. Our costs will go up by about 11% and 12% next year. People want to make a political decision instead. We need 8%, or else we [will have to] start cutting academic programmes.”
Another vice-chancellor, who also asked not to be named, said: “My own position is that we need new additional income of about 8% for us to be sustainable and sustain our operations. That money could come from student fees, government and the private sector. If we don’t get it, it will mean that the quality of education will be placed in great jeopardy. It means we won’t be able to restock our libraries, and we won’t get the necessary equipment and material for studies, or [money for] remuneration of staff.”
Another senior executive at a top university said if universities failed to secure the 8% raise, many would have to scale back on expensive education programmes.
“Those are the long-term results of the lack of funding. And once you destroy academic capabilities, it could take more than a decade to rebuild them,” he said.
“We are very close to reaching an agreement [with the department of higher education and training]. But the issue is that those who are able to pay are not paying. Why?”
The privileged should be looking after themselves, he said, adding that the conversation now centred on who is poor and who falls into the so-called missing middle.
Councils, he said, would have to determine a reasonable increase for those who would afford to pay.
“The likelihood is that there will be a 0% increase for the poor and the missing middle. That will be funded by the state at probably something between 6% and 8%. What we are clear about is that somebody has to pay,” he said.
Another university vice-chancellor said “wealthy people have to pay” and lauded Nzimande and Gordhan for “working extra time, and in trying times, to ensure that the poor and the missing middle are not denied access to higher education because of their background”.
“We should never look at education as an expense,” he said, adding that the private sector should consider playing an active role in funding higher education because it was the main beneficiary of graduates coming out of universities.
SA Students Congress secretary Tembani Makata agreed that the poor and the missing middle should not be excluded because of their backgrounds.
“We are advocating free education for the poor. Increments should not affect them. Those who can afford must pay so that financial aid can be reserved for those who deserve it,” he said.