Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS
Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS

HIGHER Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande says the government is committed to finding the resources to support the children of all poor, working- and middle-class families so that they are able access higher education.

Nzimande announced on Monday that universities will have to determine their own fee increases for 2017, but any increase must not exceed 8%.

However, he said fees for students qualifying for funding under the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), as well as the so-called missing middle, will not increase in 2017.

“We understand the legitimate student concerns about the affordability of university education. At the same time, we need to ensure that those who can afford to pay, must pay,” he said.

“We have looked at the challenges at hand from all sides and have concluded that the best approach would be to allow universities individually to determine the level of increase that their institutions will require to ensure that they continue to operate effectively and at least maintain existing quality — with the caution that this has to also take into account affordability to students, and therefore has to be transparent, reasonable and related to inflation-linked adjustments.

“Our recommendation is that fee adjustments should not go above 8%,” said Nzimande.

“To ensure that such inflation-linked fee adjustments on the 2015 fee baseline are affordable to financially needy students, government is committed to finding the resources to support children of all poor, working- and middle-class families — those with a household income of up to R60,000 a year — with subsidy funding to cover the gap between the 2015 fee and the adjusted 2017 fee at their institution. This will be done for fee increments up to 8%,” he said.

This will in effect mean all NSFAS qualifying students, as well as the so-called missing middle whose families earn more than the NSFAS threshold but not enough to afford university fees, will experience no fee increase in 2017, said Nzimande.

“Government will pay for the fee adjustment. This will bring huge relief to nurses, teachers, police, social workers, and other parents who work in occupations that do not earn huge salaries, and who have children at university. This will apply to students at universities and TVET [technical and vocational education and training] colleges.”

Nzimande, who was speaking during a media briefing, emphasised that universities were struggling financially and any moratorium on fee increases would make it difficult for the institutions to function.

The Council on Higher Education warned in a report submitted to Nzimande in August that implementing students’ demands for a 0% increase would leave most of SA’s already underfunded universities in a worse financial position, threatening the sustainability of the higher education system.

In 2016‚ National Treasury allocated an extra  R16bn for higher education‚ following the 0% increase and the NSFAS crisis‚ by cutting  budgets of other departments

Nzimande said that while the presidential commission looking at the feasibility of free education continued with its work in developing proposals for a long-term funding model, universities would not be able to operate with less than what they already have.

Following the FeesMustFall protests in 2015, President Jacob Zuma set up a commission to look into the feasibility of free higher education. The commission’s work has been disrupted by students who want it to investigate how to make free education a reality — not its brief of “the feasibility of free higher education”.

The commission on Monday noted Nzimande’s announcement, saying it was “appreciative of the implications the announcement and the reactions it has elicited will have on the continuing work of the commission”.

“It has become, therefore, even more critical that all role players in the sector afford the commission the necessary space and time to complete its work,” commission spokesman Musa Ndwandwe said.

Public hearings for the commission are expected to resume on September 29, with a preliminary report expected to be submitted to President Jacob Zuma in November.

The University of Johannesburg on Monday welcomed Nzimande’s announcement, saying it would now begin engaging students and other stakeholders on the increase.

The university’s council is expected to meet in the next two to three weeks to decide on fee increments, spokesman Herman Esterhuizen said.

UJ’s SRC members could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Higher Education Transformation Network on Monday called for an additional 1% skills development levy to be ring-fenced for university education.

Universities should also declare their financial reserves and investments, which should be returned to the Treasury, it said.

“We reiterate that these billions of university reserves … are ill-gotten gains from the racist historic subsidy formulae [of] the former apartheid state,” it said.

With Karl Gernetzky