Fee-Free inquiry: The Failures and Successes

2016-12-10 15:30

The Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training issued an Interim report on the feasibility of fee-free higher education training on 2 November 2016.  Although the report is laudable in briefly providing information of the progress of the commission in assessing the possibility of fee-free education, the report fails to effectively set out the numerous nuances, background details and applications of their findings associated with the Fees Must Fall movement.  It further fails to offer any form of constructive recommendations on the interim steps forward for resolving the turbulent issues faced by a number of the higher education institutions in South Africa.  The issues surrounding the Fees Must Fall protests are complex.  It requires a commitment from not on only the commissioners drafting the reports but also from NGO’s, government departments, private educational providers, universities and colleges and individuals.  These entities need to specify supplemental information to contribute to the detailed conclusion of the final report.  Yet, the interim report reflects an in-comprehensive and slow response to a movement calling for immediate action for almost two years.

The Successes:

Indeed, the report highlights various aspects to be addressed with little to no contention.  Higher education and training is a constitutional right as cited in section 29(1)(b).  The Constitution of South Africa reigns supreme for upholding values of equality, dignity and freedom.  Nonetheless, individuals in our communities are still being denied access to tertiary education because of a lack of financial means.  The commission rightfully proposes that members of low (less than annual family income of R122 000) or the ‘missing’ middle income bracket (less than R600 000 annual family income), should have their education fully funded.  It further states that the loan recipients should only have to repay in full or in part when a certain level of income is earned by the student.  It also pushes for the loan repayment process to be self-sustaining.  The collection of the debt could be enforced through the income tax authorities as opposed to NSFAS.  NSFAS, who have shown on various occasions to be inefficient and ineffective in collecting debt are also inadequate to cover the number of students who qualify for their funding.  Inevitably, NSFAS has contributed to the historic debt at many of the institutions.  In addition to this, the interim report has expanded the interpretation of accessibility of higher education to include transport, living expenses, accommodation, as well as learning materials, books and more.  In the penultimate section of the report, the commissioners have supported a greater concertation of planning and funding in relation to TVET colleges.  The TVET colleges should, inter alia, increase the number of students, improve infrastructure, restructure the curriculum and offer the placement of students in the workplace.  Lastly, the report insists on addressing the systemic and other deficiencies in the basic education systems.  These deficiencies relate to reducing the student to staff ratios, tightening of the entrance criteria and once again to improve infrastructure to accommodate the larger student population that would increase if free access to higher education is realized.  An additional proposal is to improve the graduation rates of both universities and colleges which were found to be disastrously low.

The Failures:

Indeed, there are various important highlights in the report but yet there is still a lacuna in the findings of the document.  On a superficial level, the report lacks definitive substance.  The introduction does not offer the reader an understanding of the mandate of the commission; the background to the writings of the report; the main findings of the contributions brought forward by the two hundred written representations as well as the fifty oral presentations.  Significantly it lacks any form of headings and is difficult to follow.  It comes across as a rushed effort to ease the rising tension felt throughout the nation whilst lacking any form of in-depth analysis to the serious issues at hand.  In fact, the report brings forth findings generously propagated throughout the Fees Must Fall campaign.  There are no real unique findings as to what has been intricately discussed during the tenure of drafting of the report.  Although the conclusion section subtly delves into eight recommendations such as a voucher system, the role of providers of private higher education and an earnest plea for a more fruitful participation from the private sector, including corporates and BBEEE schemes, it once again lacks evidential weight and detail as to what the interim conclusions factually mean.  It is a compilation of vague suggestions affording the reader little room to comprehend an understanding of the what could possibly be done for the future of higher education .

Possible Suggestions and Criticisms: 

Understandably so, this is only the interim report and the final report due in June 2017, could answer these questions.  However, higher education institutions are expected to continue on functioning despite the possibility of another uprising by students who feel sidelined and ignored.  The commission could have used the interim report as a platform to show solidarity for the campaign by recognizing the struggles faced by student in South Africa.  This could have been done by outlining the educational system during apartheid, followed by the lack of change seen over twenty years on.  It was an opportunity to educate those who were against the campaign.  It could have suggested  the idea of fee-free education on why this matter is of such importance to millions of poor or middle class black students.  It was a chance to denounce the violence by offering informed decisions and strategies.  It could have explained how the students protesting and the commissioners can work together to come to come to an agreement on the future of funding higher education.

Instead, it is an eight-page document informing the public that perhaps in June 2017, a concrete conclusion with substantive solutions will be postulated to the public.  It is saddening to note and screams to the students, the country and the international community that there is a lack of commitment to end the disruptions caused by the protests.  The hope, is that the public sector and the commission endeavor to improve the education outcomes but that the private sector also contributes.  It is up to them to devise strategies for reducing the costs of higher education.  Structuring short and long term plans so that we as the public are not only informed of the changes but so that they are transparent.  Once they are transparent, the entities can be held be accountable or congratulated on their success or failures.

Section 29(b) of the Constitutions of South Africa states that “everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable. In order to ensure the effective access to, and implementation of, this right, the state must consider all reasonable educational alternatives, including single medium institutions, taking into account ­ equity; practicability; and the need to redress the results of past racially discriminatory laws and practices.”  The Commission has been mandated to lead an immense task.  It is up to them to ensure that an effective final report which addresses all of the constrains to fee-free education is produced.  Conversely, it is up us to assure the report is drafted and implemented without any further delay.  Essentially, ensuring that the interests of the people of this nation and peace returns to all of the higher educational institutions.

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