Free higher education debate continues


In October 2015 the Fees Must Fall student movement engaged in protest action at universities across South Africa, putting forward a number of demands. The protest started at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) when students began protesting against a 10.5% increase in university tuition fees.

The movement spread to other universities as students demanded a 0% increase in fees and free education, and raised other issues such as the outsourcing of workers at universities. At UP students peacefully protested on UP’s Hatfield campus. The protests came to an end after students from UP, Wits, Tshwane University of Technology, and the University of Johannesburg marched to the Union Buildings on 23 October 2015, where President Jacob Zuma was expected to address students. While the President ultimately did not address the students protesting at the Union Buildings, he addressed the nation on national television and announced that there would be a 0% increase in university tuition fees for 2016.


In January 2016 President Zuma announced the launch of the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training (the “Fees Commission”). The Fees Commission was established to make inquiries, detail findings, report on, and make recommendations on the feasibility of making higher education and training free, and was initially required to complete its work within eight months of its establishment and submit its final report to the president within two months of completion of its work. An extension was later granted at the request of chair of the Commission, retired judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal Jonathan Heher, allowing the Commission to submit a preliminary report to the President on 15 November 2016. The time period for public submissions was also extended.

The Fees Commission remains ongoing and is currently conducting public hearings across the country. During the hearings in Cape Town, initially scheduled for 5 and 6 September, protesters, who were allegedly students facing disciplinary action, disrupted the hearings and prevented University of Cape Town (UCT) vice-chancellor Dr Max Price from leaving the venue. Dr Price had to be escorted from the venue by police.

In an article published on 4 September titled “University fees will rise”, City Press reported that the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) decided to allow tertiary institutions to decide their own fee increases for 2017. According to the article, an anonymous source in the DHET told City Press that the DHET did not have the legal authority to tell universities what to change, and that changes were at the discretion of university councils. According to the article, officials from the DHET were certain that fee increases would be implemented for the wealthy. Additionally, the vice-chancellor from “one of the country’s top universities” told City Press that vice-chancellors had agreed not to accept less than an 8% increase. Another vice-chancellor told City Press, “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.”

Opinions on the feasibility of a 0% increase in university fees or free education differ. In an article titled “There’s no money for zero fee increases in 2017”, published on 12 August, EWN reported that the National Treasury claimed during a presentation to the Fees Commission that it had not budgeted for another 0% fee increase at tertiary institutions for 2017. City Press reported in an article titled “Showdown looms as university fees are set to rise”, published on 14 August, that Michael Sachs, head of the Treasury’s budget office, said that prospects for economic growth were limited and the Treasury had predicted a state debt of R2.3 trillion by 2018, adding that “it will be difficult to channel money to higher education from elsewhere”. Sachs claimed that due to last year’s lack of fee increases, R16 billion which was allocated to local governance and service delivery had to be reallocated by the Treasury to fund higher education. It was also reported that the DHET claimed that after the Fees Must Fall protests more students were not paying their fees, even if they were financially capable of doing so. At the hearings it was reported that UP presented that if an 8% increase in tuition fees for 2017 did not take place, the university would make a R100 million loss in 2018.

In August, Higher Education Minister Dr Blade Nzimande requested advice on a regulatory framework for managing fee increases from the Council for Higher Education. The council recommended that an across the board inflation-linked increase should be implemented for 2017. In an article titled “0% fee increase for 2017 will be unsustainable” published on 14 August, EWN reported that the council advised universities to agree on a uniform fee increase for 2017. It was further reported that the report submitted by the council said that an inflation-linked fee increase balanced the interests of students with the sustainability of the higher education sector.

The University of the Western Cape has spoken out in support of free education for the poor and the “missing middle”, students who have a household income above the maximum threshold required for NSFAS funding but who still cannot afford university tuition. In late August UCT proposed a fee increase for students who come from homes which earn R500 000 or more a year, while poorer students would not be subject to fee increases. In an article titled “Varsity fees: UCT proposes wealthy students pay more in 2017” published on 29 August, reported that Dr Price had sent an email to students, staff, and alumni of UCT proposing the fee increase for wealthier students. It was reported that Dr Price had said that while there was uncertainty over fee increases, academically eligible students should not be turned away for financial reasons.

At time of going to print, there has not been any announcement from UP about a fee increase for 2017. In an official statement from the SRC following the mass meeting on fees on 15 August, the SRC said that “it is not farfetched for students to demand no increment and to intensify the call for free quality education.” However, the Treasury did not budget for a 0% fee increase for 2017 on the understanding that the Fees Commission would have completed its work within the prescribed time period and that students “cannot be entertaining fee increments” when no measures had been put in place to address the concerns raised during the Fees Must Fall protests in 2015.


Photo: Shen Scott

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