Higher education commission recommendations described as provocative

Students demanding free tertiary education have greeted the government’s long-awaited report on varsity fees with derision.

Wits University

The Higher Commission on Free Education report was released by President Jacob Zuma at noon yesterday.

But one recommendation, free government-funded education for students studying at technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges such as Buffalo City College, was welcomed.

The largest student organisation in the country, the South African Student Congress (Sasco) in the Eastern Cape described the release as a “provocation”.

Sasco provincial secretary Lwando Mangqishi said students had expected Zuma to deliver free education to the poor at all institutions of higher learning.

The report which landed in Zuma’s office on August 30 sparked public pressure for its release.

It calls for a fundamental shift towards private sector banks offering soft, government-guaranteed student loans.

The commission, which was led by retired Judge Jonathan Herer, recommends the scrapping of National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to be replaced by the Income-Contingent Loan (ICL) scheme for university and private colleges students. The ICL, it is proposed, should be financed by banks and guaranteed by government.

According to the report, all tertiary students regardless of their family financial background, will qualify for the ICL subject to admission to university.

The loan from the bank “should be for any amount up to the full cost of study” including accommodation both in residence or private digs, tuition, food allowance, transport and other academic related expenses.

Only once students graduate and find work will they be expected to repay the ICL money, and only once they reach “an income threshold appropriate to a repayment obligation”, reads the report’s recommendation on the funding model.

If graduates, who in the course of their careers, are unable to reach the required income threshold, then the government will be liable for the repayment of the bank loan.

The commission claims the ICL model has worked well in Australia, New Zealand and England.

“The report is about findings and recommendations. We want pronouncement by the President on the call we made for free education but there is still the ministerial task team working on the report, meaning releasing the report was just provocation to students,” said Mangqishi.

“We view the recommendation proposing the Income Contingent Loan scheme as a move to enrich banks through government-backed repayment of loans.

“And it does not exonerate students from [the] debt sentence which we have long rejected and went as far as saying NSFAS should be a grant not a loan.”

Mangqishi, however, said they welcomed the recommendation for application and registration fees to be scrapped across board, describing it as “a step forward”.

The commission lamented that this recommendation was because TVET colleges was educating poorer students who needed financial and academic support.

Furthermore, for TVET graduates “the commission noted the lower earning power of graduates and the challenges associated with employability after graduation”.

Mangqishi said free education at the TVET colleges was “progress towards the free education we want” but warned the ANC government not to move the goalposts because “in all its conferences it takes a decision to implement free education but practically nothing is done”.

Attempts to get comment from DA Student Movement proved fruitless at the time of writing.

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