What’s Happening with Free Education?

The State of the Nation has been postponed with no set date and the government has yet to explain how it’ll fund fee-free education while most students will have returned to university by next week. In all of this, what’s happening with Free Education?

President Jacob Zuma’s sudden announcement late last year that government would fully subsidise tertiary fees was a surprise to everyone.  This subsidy is on offer to all students from households earning less than R350 000 per year.  A subsidy basically means that government will be paying for education costs.  Most universities had already set their budgets not to mention their fee increases and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) had already accepted applicants for 2018.

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So, how would universities be integrated into this policy? How would the state pay for it? And is this decision actually good for students?

The Proposal

The President’s plan for subsidised education looks something like this:

  • Instead of administering loans, NSFAS will now manage the funding of poor and working-class students through 100% grants.
  • The definition of “poor and working class” students has been expanded to include those from families with a combined annual income of up to R350 000. This means that students from over 90% of South African households will now be eligible for subsidised education.
  • Fees for these students will be fully subsidised by a government grant, as will their meals, accommodation and transport.
  • Students will need a firm offer from one of South Africa’s 26 universities/universities of technology or 56 TVET colleges in order to access a government grant.
  • It was originally reported that the grants would be limited to new first-year students and fully subsidised education would be phased in over 5 years. While there’s still confusion as to who will be eligible for grants, Morris Masutha, so-called architect of the subsidised education plan, told HuffPost in January that students in their 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th year who were on NSFAS will have their loans converted into a 100% grant.  This means they will not need to be paid back.
  • While some details and specifics might change over the course of this year, this is the proposal which is being put in place across the country.

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How does Registration work?

Last month, the Department of Higher Education and Training met with representatives from the country’s 26 universities and universities of technology as well as the Chair of the NSFAS board, Sizwe Nxasane, to discuss how universities will handle the 2018 registration process.

Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities South Africa, spoke to News24 after the meeting.

“This is really not a free education system.  It’s still a fee-based system, with a bursary system for students that come from households where the income is between 0 and R350 000.”

Here is what the universities and the Department agreed to:

  • Intake at South African universities in 2018 will be fixed at about 208 000 students.
  • Each university will still set its own fees, to be approved by the institution’s council, which will then be paid by bursaries, funded by the Department of Higher Education. The department has announced plans to introduce a fees framework to cap future fee increases by universities.
  • All universities are preparing to facilitate prospective students who arrive for registration. Some universities are still accepting late applications, and only some of these will facilitate walk-in applications. Bawa has urged students to use the national centre for late applications instead.  He states that this is a far more reliable way of securing your position at a university in 2018. 

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Register with the Central Applications Clearing House (CACH)

To apply through CACH, you first need to register on the system.  From there, your grade 12 results will be taken directly from the Department of Basic Education and your study choice will be matched with the spaces still available.

NSFAS CEO, Steven Zwane, has confirmed that around 75% of the 300 000 NSFAS applicants have received confirmation of funding for 2018. Despite this, Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, Buti Manamela, has urged universities not to turn away any student who shows they’ve applied to NSFAS.

“The institutions will take their details and present them to NSFAS. All the students who qualified and studied with NSFAS [loans] last year must register – as long as they have passed all their courses.”

Questions Surrounding the Policy

When President Zuma announced his subsidised education policy, he was acting against the recommendations of the Commission that he had set up to determine the feasibility of free education. What can we say? Our President is a rebel. The Herer Commission found that government did not have the capacity to pay for free education, and listening to the Finance Minister it’s easy to see why.

Let’s Talk Numbers

Finance Minister, Malusi Gigaba, announced last year that there’s a R51bn shortfall in the budget for this financial year. Spending will be R3.9bn higher than anticipated and growth has been revised down from 1.3% to 0.7% for 2017.  Yes, it’s a pretty bleak situation. In his own words,

“it is not in the public interest‚ nor is it in the interest of government‚ to sugar-coat the state of our economy and the challenges we are facing.”

The subsidised higher education policy would likely cost the government upwards of R40 billion per year. The absence of any explanation from the Presidency or the Treasury as to how government will pay for subsided higher education, as well as the postponement of the State of the Nation Address, has lowered public confidence in the government’s ability to deliver on the President’s promises.

What does this mean for Students?

Even if South Africa does find the money to fund this subsidised education programme, the effect on universities and students remains unclear. By expanding the NSFAS eligibility criteria to include 90% of South African households, those most in need of financial support and who NSFAS previously supported might have to compete with the rest of the nation. With all these students competing for so few spots, will those from under-performing schools gain better access to tertiary education? If the government ends up being unable to fund these grants, where will that leave students?

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2018 Application Dates

Take a look at which South African institutions are still accepting applications.

Harming or Helping Students?

The lack of information regarding free education has already been bad for students. Since there was no explanation of the registration process, EFF leader, Julius Malema could call for students to simply arrive at universities and demand places be made available for them. Hashtag Chaos. This puts students at risk; six hopeful students were injured on the 11th of January as students jostled for access ahead of registration at the Capricorn TVET College in Polokwane.

There is also a strong feeling that this decision was NOT made in the interests of students but as a political move. The announcement came days before the ANC elective conference. Universities report that they were not consulted and the absence of even a basic funding model suggests that the success of subsidised education is less of a priority than the promise of it.

University Capacity: An Immovable Object

The promise of Free Education, for 2018 at least, has come up against university capacity. With applications closed, universities filled to capacity and the academic year almost underway, it’s unlikely that anyone who’s not already going to university to find a place. Until more details are revealed in the Finance Minister’s budget speech on the 21st of February, this is the state of free education in South Africa.

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Fee-free education might sound like a dream come true if you would like to study further. The only issue is whether the government can follow through on its promise. Let’s hope we are moving towards a free education system rather than building a foundation for chaos.

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