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USAf commits to ensuring free higher education works

Thabo Mohlala

Universities South Africa (USAf) has taken a pragmatic view on the unfolding potential crisis that may threaten the start of the 2018 academic year across the country’s 26 universities.

The universities raised concerns about the short timeline for implementing President Jacob Zuma’s announcement of free higher education.

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) caused anxiety when it encouraged new students to report physically at the gates of the institutions of their choice despite university managements’ calls for online registration.

But USAf said in a statement after it met with Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), that it decided to work towards a smooth start of the 2018 academic year.

It also welcomed President Zuma’s announcement of the new student funding model because of its “potential to address the question of affordability of higher education and post-school education and training more generally”.

USAf said it recommended to the Heher Commission that the NSFAS loan system should be converted into a grant (or bursary) system.

“The fact that young graduates from poor and working-class families won’t have to worry about student debt as they start their careers is very important,” it said in its statement.

The body said it would pull out all the stops to ensure the new system works as “it has enormously powerful positive ramifications for young South Africans, for the university system and for South Africa as a whole”.

It said one of the primary objectives of a university is to be a key social institution that must strive to work towards building equitable, just and democratic societies. Therefore, “any higher education system in the world that is unaffordable to the majority of people in that society is, by definition, in a state of continuous crisis.”

USAf said its member universities fully subscribed to the constitutional directive that “education be made progressively available to all South Africans. As such, any barrier to the realisation of this objective must be addressed”.

It hailed the role played by NSFAS for disbursing funds to deserving students but also said “it was deeply concerned by the spectre of runaway debt and the fact that the NSFAS loan system did not quite reach all students that were in need of financial support including some who qualified through the means test but who remain unfunded”.

It further undertook to “address the challenge of ensuring that no young South African who has been offered a place at one of our universities is prevented from taking up that opportunity for reasons of unaffordability”.

USAf said the meeting with NSFAS and DHET also resolved to take specific measures to “mitigate against any risks that may arise because of the short timescales involved”.

They prioritised three categories of students:

  • The first category — students who have applied to universities and to NSFAS, need not do anything further; their applications will be processed automatically.
  • The second category — students who have applied to universities but have not applied for financial aid because their family earnings extended beyond the old NSFAS threshold of R122,000. The new NSFAS threshold is R350,000 and the only step that these students need to take is to visit the Financial Aid Office at their university and ask to be considered for a NSFAS bursary. Appropriate application procedures will be explained to them.
  • And the third category — students who have not applied for entry to a university. They will have to apply directly to the DHET’s Central Application Clearing House (CACH) system which would allow DHET, universities and TVET colleges to work jointly to place them across the system.

The organisation said the enrolment plans for 2018 indicate an intake of about 208,000 new students by the 26 public universities, while the TVET colleges sector will open up the way for about 350 000 new students. It said its urgent challenge is to make sure that “every single place that is available is effectively taken up by students”.

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