Minister of higher education and training (DHET), Hlengiwe Mkhize is positive the situation at universities will return to normal when the 2018/19 academic year starts in a few months.
Mkhize took over the reins at the DHET amid growing calls from students and university management for the release of the delayed Fees Commission report after it was submitted to President Jacob Zuma in August. The recommendations were finally made public and a special team of technocrats is currently processing them.
“The first day in office is always overwhelming in the sense that you look at the scope of work and wonder as to where you are going to start particularly in my case when I came towards the end of the academic term. Of course one has to prioritise and in this instance, the thing I had to look at is the Judge Heher commission report,” said Mkhize
She said the report has been discussed by cabinet and they are currently analysing it with the help of the Presidential Fiscal and Inter-ministerial Committees chaired by the Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe.
“Looking at the recommendations as a collective helps to move the process forward. We are now moving towards taking clear positions and say this is within our reach in terms of financial constraints or that this and that might be long-term etc. With these recommendations, you can’t say they are right or wrong. Anyone interested in education will agree with some of the things such as for instance, a recommendation that all poor students studying in public and private institutions should be financially supported,” Mkhize said.
According to a report by Business Day, it seems free higher education for the poor will be introduced in next year’s budget. Some students demanded free education for all.
This is in line with what Mkhize told Inside Education. She said the technical team would make choices that are in line with 1994 policies that focus on funding the most financially vulnerable students in the system.
“The main considerations have been accessibility and sustainability. Basically, we feel whatever we finally take to the president must address these two critical factors,” said Mkhize.
Added Mkhize: “This process made me aware that we need to be smarter and avoid making certain pronouncements such as “free education”, rather we must think more about who is paying for what. And the big question has been about the right to education and responsibilities. What conditions can we put in place so that our students can take full responsibility for their studies.”
Why does she feel optimistic the academic year will get off to a smooth start despite threats of student protests?
“We have not been on holidays; we have been working and engaging with the vice-chancellor through their association – Universities South Africa. They seem to be on the same page; sympathetic to students’ cause especially the poor. So we agree on how to take care of those poor students. We have given them in principle decisions; they [vice-chancellors] are fully and better briefed than students because they were busy with examinations,” said Mkhize.
She said she will be meeting with all the academic registrars of the universities very soon to assess their state of readiness for the next academic year.
“So there is a lot of work taking place behind the scenes; we are not just waiting for the president to announce the final government position on the commission’s report. We are all agreed that whatever the final position is announced we should all go out to engage and communicate and avoid ambiguities so that students know for sure what official position is,” Mkhize said.
But, she said, it is important to highlight the point that students who get financial support must understand that the right to education goes with responsibility. “You don’t want a situation where you have high drop-out rates of students who have been fully funded,” added Mkhize.
She said they agreed with the vice-chancellors that since the final announcement has not been made yet, they should be cautious about what they discuss. But we are all agreed that we should come up with a reasonable package and to engage all the stakeholders as well as to be clear about the interventions we put in place.