Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS/NTSWE MOKOENA
Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS/NTSWE MOKOENA

SOME wit on Twitter said Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s announcement on university fees on Monday amounted to him throwing universities under a bus. It wasn’t so much a bus as an oncoming train.

Nevertheless, we can expect disruptions on campuses, violence, threats, destruction and outrageous demands that universities cannot meet. Some students will have heard the words "increase" and "8%" as an invitation to cause mayhem.

READ THIS: Focus must be skills not degrees

In terms of the Higher Education Act of 1997 universities can be funded through the following means:

• funds allocated by the minister under section 39;

• donations or contributions;

• money raised by the university;

• loans and overdrafts;

• income derived from investments;

• money received for services rendered to other institutions or persons;

• money payable by students but a university may discriminate in a fair manner between students who are citizens or permanent residents, and those who are not.

Under section 39 the minister must, after consultation, determine the policy on the funding of public higher education, which must include "appropriate measures for the redress of past inequalities", and he or she must "publish such policy by notice in the Gazette|".

The minister must allocate public funds to public higher education on a fair and transparent basis.

So universities are entitled to and must set fees. Due to the last 18 months of no fee increases, increasingly unpaid fees, declining government grants, damage and ruination of university property, and the demand for insourcing, universities are on the financial rack.

There is no law that allows the minister to either set university fees or cap them. Nzimande has "agreed" to allow universities to charge higher fees but cap the increase at 8%.

And this is demonstrated by Nzimande’s statement that: "Currently, the authority for determining fee adjustments resides with university councils." In other words, it’s not up to him.

Nzimande further says that:

• Starving our universities of funding is not the way to go, which is what another across-the-board fee rise moratorium would mean;

• The best approach is to allow universities individually [he can’t do otherwise] to determine the level of increase that their institutions need to ensure effective operation and maintain existing quality;

• This has to also take into account affordability to students, has to be transparent, reasonable and related to inflation-linked adjustments.

"Our recommendation is that fee adjustments should not go above 8%."

But in the current climate, God help the university that imposes any fee increase, whether it is an increase of 8% or more.

Nzimande is kicking for touch because the presidential commission of inquiry into higher education and training funding will not be ready to recommended a long-term funding model for higher education until June 2017.

Nzimande says that we need to ensure that those who can afford to pay must pay. However, the government will continue to fund poor students through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)

"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 R600,000 per annum – 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%.

"This will in effect mean that all NSFAS-qualifying students, as well as the so-called missing middle … will experience no fee increase in 2017. Government will pay for the fee adjustment."

It does not mean, as many students are demanding, that there will be no fees charged.

NOW READ THIS: Myriad hurdles youth face mean return on investment has yet to be realised

Nzimande doesn’t state exactly how this will be done.

He says that administrative mechanisms on how to apply for the gap-funding grant will be complete before the end of this academic year. This mechanism exists in the basic schooling sector but can it be achieved in time in the higher education sector?

"There are many students from upper-middle-class and well-off families, as well as students on full company bursaries in our institutions, who can afford to pay the adjusted 2017 fees, and we expect them to do so."

Is Nzimande really that ignorant as to how universities compete to attract the best students, and how the corporate sector and the public sector attract students to study what is of value to them? These entities offer bursaries. The value of these students doesn’t lie in whether they can pay fees. Academically strong students are assets to their university. Those supported by corporates and government become assets to their employers and ultimately to the broader society.

Nzimande clearly doesn’t understand this then he says "It is very unclear to government why families who can afford private schools should, under the current circumstances, be receiving further state subsidies for their children at universities.

"To subsidise these students would require taking funding from the poor to support cheaper higher education for the wealthy, which is not justifiable in a context of inequality in our country."

On what basis does he create this evidential black hole?

University students of 18 years or older are majors. Their parents, families or households are not obliged to support them. Nzimande needs to sound more contrite and appreciative of the families who are prepared to pay fees.

Does the missing middle with a household income of less than R600,000 per year include white students?

As Belinda Bozzoli, the DA’s spokeswoman on higher education, says, only the government can pay. (How to get Higher Education out of the hole it is in, Politicsweb, September 8 2016).

The DA has identified R2.7bn in the 2016/17 budget which could have been transferred to assist poor students while also giving universities enough subsidies so they can pay their bills. Yet the ANC blocked this proposal, making it hard to believe that it is serious about finding solutions to this crisis.

In the DA’s submission to the commission of inquiry, it proposed that:

• The poorest students should be comprehensively supported;

• The "missing middle" students should receive support, proportional to their financial standing;

• Better-off students should not receive government financial support for fees or other expenses;

"University subsidies should move gradually towards the level of 50% of costs to a) support quality education, and b) minimise the fee-increase cycle we are currently experiencing."

Bozzoli says that while South African Airways has lost R11bn in the past two years alone, and is continually and irrationally bailed out, "a million students and 26 struggling institutions remain underfunded and subjected, at the most, to unsatisfactory short-term solutions".

Our universities are going to need a great deal of luck in disciplining students who break university and society rules in protesting against possible fee increases. But if universities are going to survive they are going to have to prove that university and society rules may not be broken, ever.

Gon is a research fellow at the Institute of Race Relations