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Unisa VC: "Student crisis goes beyond funding"

Protests regarding what some call #FeesMustFall 2.0 have dominated headlines in recent days, and key stakeholders participated in an online panel discussion of issues surrounding free higher education on 18 March 2020. The event was hosted online by SPOT (Strategic Perspective on Transformation), and the panellists were Palomina Jama, National Committee Member of the South African Union of Students; Prof Puleng LenkaBula, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor; Buti Manamela, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation; and Ernest Khosa, Chairperson of the Board of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

Prof LenkaBula said that rather than focusing exclusively on the fiscal aspect, role-players should look at policy design on a structural level to facilitate the creation of a system that benefits higher education as the key community in the quest to change society. "This will imply that the philosophical and ideological ideas of 'education for change' and 'education for all' become an integral supposition in any policy thinking around higher education," she said.

Commenting on the poor success rates at South African higher education institutions, Prof LenkaBula said that students who come from income-challenged families struggle not merely because of finances. "It’s not only the financial issues that they have to tackle," she said, "it’s also the socioeconomic and political conditions that they have to contend with, including issues of hunger on campus and lack of residences. This calls for a structural intervention regarding universal access."

Prof LenkaBula further called for a strengthening of the partnership between basic education and higher education bodies, and the addition of trade and industry as a further partner to assist in identifying and creating workplace opportunities for students.


Free, but at great cost

Deputy Minister Buti Manamela said that in the first year of the fee-free higher education policy, NSFAS funding shot up from just above R5 billion to R12 billion and then R20 billion, and currently stands at R35 billion. "This will cover more than 50% of students at universities, and more than 90% of students at technical and vocational and education and training (TVET) colleges," he said. "This is no small feat and required many sacrifices, and if we are to provide fee-free education to all students at universities and TVET colleges, we are looking at a required amount of between R60 and R70 billion rand."

Turning to the definition of universal access, the Deputy Minister pointed out that South Africa is a multi-sectoral society in terms of income levels. "With the current economic policy and framework, where various concessions have been made on tax, particularly for the private sector where corporate tax has been gradually reduced, do we want to introduce universal fee-free education, even for that sector of society who can afford to pay for it? With the pressures facing the national fiscus, it would probably be unreasonable to exonerate those who can afford the fees. This calls for further discussion and examination."

Regarding success rates at universities and TVET colleges, the Deputy Minister said that although psychosocial factors, in addition to financial ones, are factors in failure, it is important to note that the success rate among NSFAS-funded students is far higher than that of the general student population. "Close on 60% of students who complete their courses are funded by NSFAS," he said.


Look at what worked in the past

Speaking also about the causes of low success rates, Palomina Jama said that a very good departmental policy intervention was the introduction of redress programmes, where an additional year was added for historically disadvantaged students to receive the necessary preparation to succeed with their studies. "However," she said, "these have by and large been done away with – this while many students still need an extra year in order to acclimatise them to the higher education environment."

Jama went on to point out flaws in the NSFAS programme, such as not providing devices and data on time. She said that universities and colleges must also assist students in overcoming these hurdles if they are serious about improving success rates.


Successes must not be overlooked

Ernest Khosa said that while NSFAS acknowledges failures in the past, the organisation’s successes far exceed these. "In 2018, we benefited 650 000 students, while this year there are 1.1 million beneficiaries," he said. "This illustrates the growth of the number of students seeking funding and, concomitant with that, the growth of NSFAS as a fund."

Khosa said that discussions at this event on how NSFAS students can accommodate historical debt have been most welcome. Further to that, he said that an important question to examine at a future date is where the money to fund the current situation came from. "That question speaks to better government coordination," he said. "It talks to the issue of the state at large owning the whole concept of free education."


A call for peaceful contestation

In her closing remarks, Prof LenkaBula referenced unfortunate incidents during the recent protests, and spoke of the joint responsibility of institutions of learning and students to prevent violence. "We support students’ right to protest as an expression of injustice and discord, and it is a constitutional right," she said. "However, institutions must not become sites of military or police action due to violence. Both institutions and students are responsible for creating an environment for engagement, debate, discussion and contestation without the hurling of insults, name-calling and brutality."

* By Philip van der Merwe, Editor, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2021-03-18 00:00:00.0