Universities want meeting with Department of Higher Education over 'free' education

Minister of Higher Education and Training, Hlengiwe Mkhize (File)
Minister of Higher Education and Training, Hlengiwe Mkhize (File)

Johannesburg – As vice-chancellors on Wednesday expressed concern over the implementation of President Jacob Zuma's fee free decision, Universities SA (USAf) said it hoped a meeting with the Department of Higher Education could take place soon.

"Vice-chancellors were never consulted about the Heher Commission Report and the President's free education statement issued on 16 December 2017. Anything to the contrary is inaccurate," said the University of Fort Hare’s vice-chancellor Sakhela Buhlungu in a Facebook post.

He said that while some universities were invited to make submissions to the Heher commission, once the final report was given to Zuma, it was up to him to "decide on what he wanted to do with it".

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

However, "now, the Minister [of Higher Education and Training, Hlengiwe Mkhize] is claiming that universities had an input in how the president responded to the report. That is the part that is untrue/incorrect/inaccurate," said Buhlungu.

"VCs were as stunned as everybody else by the president's announcement of 16 December."

Furthermore, he added, "When politicians make a decision, they must have the courage of their convictions to own their decision. THAT is my point."

Last month, Zuma announced that free higher education would be made available to students from households that have a combined annual income of R350 000.

His announcement followed a report into university funding in August. The report was compiled by the Heher Commission of Inquiry after widespread protests at universities over fees, and it found that universal free education was not feasible.

'We don't have all the answers'

On Wednesday, continuing his response to the looming implementation of the funding change, Buhlungu declared: "We are starting the new academic year in three weeks but we have not been informed what the subsidy is and what adjustments have been made for free education. As we speak, even the minister has no idea where the money is going to come from."

Speaking to News24, Professor Wim de Villiers, vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University, echoed both Buhlungu’s concerns, as well as his hope to make the system work.

"With regard to consultation… I totally agree with him [Buhlungu]: there was insufficient, to no, consultation."

Moreover, he agreed that the practicalities needed to be ironed out: "These details need to be sorted out; we don’t have all the answers."

ALSO READ: SA universities will not accept 'walk-in' applications

Registrars and a team were working on the issues, but further clarification, such as when the funding would then be paid to the universities, was not actually known.

Nevertheless, De Villiers concluded on a positive note: "There are a huge number of unanswered questions but I don’t want to be alarmist – I am quite optimistic that it [is a system which can go] well."

Meanwhile, Mukovhe Morris Masutha, an apparent advisor to the president with regards to the new funding model, entered the social media conversation started by Buhlungu – keen to defend the controversial plans.

He called Buhlungu’s comments "just grandstanding" and said that the "road map" was sent to them by the Department of Higher Education.

"I am really struggling to see where the crisis is," added Masutha.

'Universities taken by surprise'

News24 revealed in November that Masutha, who had dated Zuma’s daughter and was a prominent leader in the Fees Must Fall campaign, was listed as an employee of the State Security Agency (SSA) during his time as a student activist at Wits University.

Masutha told PowerFM that he was not a spy for the SSA, but his first job was in economic intelligence, because that was his major at university.

On Wednesday, USAf CEO Professor Ahmed Bawa said that they had approached the higher education department with the hopes of setting up a meeting with them about the funding model as soon as possible.

"The big challenge is to understand how to roll out the system, to understand what the risks are and to mitigate them."

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

Even National Treasury appeared to have been somewhat startled by Zuma’s offer announced in December. It subsequently released a short statement at the time, saying that it "notes the announcement" and was reviewing funding proposals.

On Tuesday, Bawa issued a statement declaring that "South Africa’s 26 public universities were taken by surprise by the announcement" and lamenting that there has not been a clear implementation strategy put forward.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the Higher Education Transformation Network (HETN) said it was concerned by the USAf statement from the previous day.

"We believe that there has been requisite strategic policy guidance from the state as well as internal consultative meetings between affected universities managers, NSFAS and the Department of Higher Education and Training."

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