Fees Commission begins in Tshwane

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This week on August 10 the public hearings for the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training (“the Fees Commission”) took place in Tshwane.  The commission’s mandate is to inquire into the feasibility of fee-free higher education. The public hearings are the first phase of the commission in which the commission will listen to various presentations made stakeholders. The purpose of the first phase is to identify the exact scope of the commission. Student News Grid has compiled a summary of some of the presentations and discussions held in Tshwane.

August 10

SAUS’ presentation
On August 10 the first presentation made was by South African Union of Students (SAUS). Mischeck Mugabe, SAUS’ treasurer, introduced the union by saying “that this commission was born out of the struggle that was led by us as the students from all institutions of higher learning.” Avela Mjajubana, SAUS’ president, spoke about the mandate SAUS had been given by the students. He explained that there will never be social justice and transformation if people do not have access to higher education. Mjajubana went on to say that “we demand free education in order to get skills to build our country both economically and socially.”

Fasiha Hassen, SAUS’ deputy secretary, spoke about the importance of maintaining the quality of free higher education. Hassen explained that the issue of quality has to do with resources, research and support for institutions of higher learning; all of which are financially linked. She acknowledged that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Hassen went on to say “that students are not to be the ones who must bear the brunt or the burden of paying and thus the model that is being proposed is of course that the state, universities and private sector must make a contribution.”

After Hassen had spoken, Mjajubana presented on whether free higher education should be for all or the poor. He said that free higher education should be for the poor and the missing middle. The missing middle refers to the students who are too rich for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) but too poor to afford fees or don’t have access to loans. Mjajubana explained that “we are advocating for free education for the missing middle and the poor as a short-term goal but ultimately education must be free for all in South Africa.”

University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) presentation
Adam Habib, Wits Vice-Chancellor, spoke to the commission about Wits’ submission. Habib was joined by Hlonipha Mokwena, senior professor at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), David Hornsby, chairperson of Academic Staff Association of Wits and Cathi Albertyn, senior law professor who sits on the university council. Mokwena led Wits’ presentation and brought up the challenges regarding the massification of higher education. She said “when we are thinking about the reform of the higher education system is in some ways a scaling down of that massification because that massification is unaffordable at all different levels.” Mokwena also mentioned that Wits had a meeting with the Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) concerning free higher education She said that the Wits SRC “accepted that in principal that actually free higher education would mean fewer students attending university.”

During Wits presentation the Fees Must Fall Movement came up and there was a brief discussion on the issues raised by the movement. Albertyn said that “at the centre of the Fees Must Fall Movement was the fact that academically deserving students couldn’t access university for financial reasons.” She went on to say that she believes that “the core reason of this commission is to remove that barrier.”

Wits was asked“whether their proposed SPE system could solve the debate around higher education.” Mokwena responded by explaining that Wits had received proposals that recommended two kinds of Special Purpose Entities (SPE). The first is where each university would have their own SPE and would be legally bound to put money into a privately managed asset fund. The second would be a collective SPE for all universities; Mokwena noted that for this kind of SPE the private sector would play a greater role. Mokwena said that “if say every university in South Africa was giving about R2-5 million per a year into this Special Purpose entity, it would make it possible for all students at South African universities to attend for free.” She also explained the SPE system was “a kind of market-based way of raising funds” which depended less on funding from the government and private sector.

August 11

Centre for Higher Education Trust (CHET) presentation
Nico Cloete, Director of CHET, was first to speak to the commission on Wednesday, August 11. Cloete spoke about the Fees Must Fall Movement last year and how the issues raised by the movement had been foreseen. Cloete said “when this crisis developed.. it took the university sector by surprise despite the fact that some of us have been telling them for a long time there is a big problem coming here.” He was also critical of a governmental project aimed at revising the funding formula which was chaired by Cyril Ramaphosa. Cloete said that “it was a classic case of changing the deck chairs on the titanic because the whole debate was about distributing the money that comes from government within the institutions.” He went on to say that they never entered into the debate concerning the actual amount that comes into higher education.

Cloete identified that at the heart of the debate on free higher education is the question: who fills the financial gap? When dealing with this question, Cloete acknowledged the financial positions of both students and the universities. He noted that over the last 10 years inflation of higher education has increased by 10-11% in comparison to national inflation which was 5-6%. Cloete also said that universities were under a lot of pressure with the demands for free education and insourcing.

On the topic of government subsides, Cloete believes that the middle class and rich benefit from government subsides. His reasoning was that the middle class have more access to higher education. Cloete also said that the government not only have to contribute financially to higher education but have to start participating more in broadening the system. He suggested the there should be an increase in the spending of public money on vocational education. Cloete explained that vocational education “addresses inequalities much better than the university system. Many more of the poor can get more directly and easily into vocational education.”

University of Pretoria’s (UP) presentation
UP Vice- chancellor, Cheryl de la Rey gave a presentation on UP’s submission with the help of Prof Carolina Koornof, Executive Director for Finance and Business Initiatives, and Dr. Gerald Ouma, Director of Institutional Planning. De la Rey explained how fees had increased to deal with the decrease in public funding. She identified that the challenge is “how do we as a country fund all the priorities of the post school education and training system?”

She went on to suggest that a sliding-scale tuition fee model should be considered. De la Rey acknowledged the difficulty in trying to determine what would be reasonable fees given the wealth gap in South Africa and so suggested that fees be based on a student’s household income. This kind of fee model would require all students to do a means test to determine their fees. On this point, de la Rey said how there were some students who could not afford any level of tuition fees while for many others the current tuition fees are less than the fees paid to schools.

Further De la Rey said that the sliding-scale tuition fee model would allow government to fund universities in a way that they could offset the cost for poor students. In the presentation De la Rey also spoke about the issue of massification and the importance of avoiding it. She explained that the massification of the university system being the rapid increases in enrolments combined with “stagnating or declining funding…inevitably leads to a lowering of quality.” De la Rey explained that the lowering of quality would impede on the student’s ability to get good employment.