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Speech by Minister of Higher Education and Training Bonginkosi Nzimande on the debate on Whether Free Higher Education for all is possible

29 November 2016

Honourable members, this government has prioritise access to affordable post-school education as a major challenge in our country.

To ensure the progressive realisation of the right to further education, government has developed a roadmap for the transformation of universities and TVET colleges to create opportunities for access, success, financing and support for students and institutions. Government has been addressing these challenges since 1994 hence we have undertaken a number of measures to progressively realise improved access.

Section 29 (1) of the Constitution, is a reflection of the content of the Freedom Charter, which asserted:

(a) Education shall be free, compulsory, and universal for all children
(b) Higher education and technical training shall be open to all by means of allowances and scholarships, awarded on the basis of merit

Our Contitution guarantees access "to further education, which the state through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible".

The principled position adopted by the ANC in 1997, in line with the Freedom Charter and the Constitution, is expressed through various government policy documents and actions since 1994.

This was the basis for the establishment of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to provide funding to support financially needy and academically capable young people in universities and TVET colleges to pay their upfront fees and thus open access to higher education for those to whom it was previously denied.

In the 2007 ANC Policy conference, supporting the previous policy decision, resolved that "free higher education for the poor up to undergraduate level" must be progressively implemented. This was reiterated later at the Mangaung policy conference.

Honourable Chair, let me reiterate without any shadow of doubt, that the policy of this government has always been the progressive realisation of access to higher education, particularly for the poor.

As a result, a tremendous amount of progress has been made, particulary with expanding access to the poor through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) having funded over 1.7 million students since 1994. The scheme currently supports approximately 480 000 poor undergraduate students to access university and TVET colleges.

We need to listen to students and be sympathetic to the very real concern that working class and emerging middle class students are being squeezed out of higher education due to their inability to pay the fees and have become increasingly unaffordable.

The Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP) was designed to help students from poor and middle income families - commonly referred to as the 'missing middle' - to gain access to universities and TVET colleges, and to succeed through providing full financial and other forms of support.

In 2017, the ISFAP model will be piloted at six universities and one TVET college. The pilot will fund the studies of around 2 000 students studying in a number of general formative degrees as well as seven professional qualifications and one artisan qualification for the duration of their studies. The lessons learnt during the 2017 pilot, the comments received from the public consultation process, the results of a feasibility study that will be conducted by National Treasury running parallel to the pilot, and the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training, will feed into the development of the final model.

Those that argue that Government must find the funding to provide ALL students with free higher education, are arguing for further privileging the most privileged of all students - the relatively wealthy. Should such concessions be made it will put the sustainability of the public higher education system at risk.

At the same time, it is important to stress that in an unequal society where we have not yet been in a position to provide free quality basic education and early childhood development to all, students who can afford to pay fee increases should do so, i.e. the upper middle and affluent classes. Companies and other donors that fund students should also be required to pay the increases.

The latest edition of the African Communist also reminds us of what Karl Marx said about this matter in his critique of a faction in the German Social Democratic Party in 1871 in response to its demand for "free higher education for all" as was found in some of the states in the United States at the time. He said "If in some states of the (United States) higher educational institutions are also 'free' that only means in fact defraying the cost of the education of the upper classes from the general tax receipts."

Few of the parties arguing for free higher education for all take into consideration the whole education system, from Early Childhood Development (ECD), through basic education, to further education, i.e. university, and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). Community Education and Training (CET) is also forgotten in the debate.

Evidence shows that out of every 100 children who started school in 2008, 12 eventually enter university education, the other 88 need to be absorbed into either the CET or TVET system. Yet the Post-School Education and Training (PSET) system provides the most opportunities in university education. The TVET and CET systems require the most investment and are the 2 most underfunded sectors within the PSET system.

To conclude, higher and further education cannot be free for all South Africans. Those who can afford it must pay. Significant attempts have been made to progressively provide fee-free higher and further education education for the poorest South Africans through NSFAS, and this needs to grow. At the same time there is a need to examine the overall funding for the post school education and training system is affordable and can be provided for all those who qualify. The goal should be affordable higher and further education for all South Africans, with increased support for growing numbers of those who cannot afford university fees.

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