Johannesburg – The announcement by President Jacob Zuma that free tertiary education would be extended to poor and working-class students next year has received mixed reactions from political parties.
The move has been welcomed by the Economic Freedom Fighters, while being slammed as nothing more than "populist politicking" that played with the hopes and futures of millions of young people by the Democratic Alliance.
EFF’s national spokesperson, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, said the party welcomed Zuma’s announcement as a historic generational victory of the fees must fall movement.
"This will aid a lot of families and relieve a lot of financial burden from their shoulders. We also welcome announcements of increase of government subsidy to universities as recommended by the Fees Commission," he said.
Where will the money come from?
Ndlozi said the EFF were, however, concerned about where the money would come from.
"Zuma has however not indicated where all the money will come from to fund education. We believe that there has to be war against tax avoidance, particularly in the extractive industries, to combat illicit financial flows and tax base erosion," he said.
He said the EFF had a number of recommendations to source income for free education, which included:
- Education levy on the pension fund of 2.5%.
- Additional 1% on the 1% skills levy to make it 2%.
- Government contribution must increase to 2% of the GDP, This is where illicit financial flows in
- 4.9% increase in Corporate Income Tax earmarked for higher education - this is where illicit financial flows also fit in
"Implementing free education means there will also be huge numbers that want to access higher learning institutions. As a result, government must expand actual infrastructure and staff to cater for the growing numbers," he said.
Ndlozi said the EFF’s principle policy was to provide free education for all South Africans, regardless of class background.
Zuma playing politics with students dreams
DA MP Belinda Bozzoli said while the party welcomed the announcement of free tertiary education, the exercise was completely uncosted, and therefore must be seen for what it is - playing politics with the hopes and futures of millions of young people.
Bozzoli said Zuma had waited until the very end of the year so that he could make a splash at the ANC conference, while students, their families and the institutions they wished to attend anxiously awaited news.
"Such cheap politicking is appalling. Unsurprisingly, his statement is full of promises, but lacking actual implementation details," she said.
Bozzoli said Zuma's offer of "free education for the poor" was not financially feasible.
"It will inevitably entail an increase in the NSFAS budget by at least 100% - from the current R11bn to about R22bn. In fact, the number of students in this bracket is entirely unknown and this proposal probably entails an even higher number. It could bring the cost of NSFAS up to R30bn," she said.
Bozzolli pointed out that there had been major administrative problems that hampered NSFAS in 2017, with some applicants waiting months for a response.
She said the DA also welcomed the announcement that university subsidies would be increased from 0.68% of GDP to 1% of GDP over the next five years, but pointed out that this was also uncosted.
"We fear that this statement will cause more harm than good. It makes unsustainable and uncosted offers to students, raises expectations and fails to indicate that the huge bureaucracy needed to implement it is in place," she said.
"We remain concerned that the start of the academic year of 2018 will entail turmoil and protest, and frustration on the part of students and the institutions that they attend."
NYDA will assist NFSAS
The National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) welcomed Zuma’s announcement.
"We are absolved by the decision of the president, as we held a firm view that the Heher Commission had failed [to] live up to the expectations of the student fraternity and that of stakeholders who are interested in free quality education for the poor and the working class," said NYDA chairperson, Sifiso Mtsweni.
Mtsweni said the NYDA would continue their partnership with the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to ensure the roll-out of the bursary loan scheme, which were now turned to grants.
"We will introduce a new skills programmes in 2018 to ensure that we respond to amongst others the skills shortages and unemployment amongst youth," he said.