The biggest winners in the proposals set out in the long-awaited report by the Commission into the Feasibility of Fee-Free Higher Education and Training in South Africa will be students in the TVET (Technical Vocational Education and Training colleges) sector. The Commission recommends they get free education, along with improvements to their infrastructure, teaching and curriculum.
Money should be poured into technical and vocational training, according to the Commission, known as the Heher Report, which was made public on Monday.
The report says evidence from other countries shows economic benefits when the emphasis of higher education is on “producing technically qualified, work-oriented ‘graduates’ in numbers which outweigh those of university graduates”. R50 billion should be ring-fenced for this purpose from the surplus in the Unemployment Insurance Fund, says the Commission.
For university students, though, the recommendations fall short of student demands for free education for all.
The primary mandate of the Commission was to investigate whether free higher education was possible. The answer, according to the Commission, is a categorical no.
In its summary, it finds “there is insufficient financial capacity in the state to provide totally free higher education and training to all who are unable to finance their own education”.
Instead, the Commission recommends state-guaranteed loans for university students, to be paid back only when a graduate reaches an acceptable salary level. Loans would be provided by commercial banks in a public-private partnership, which the Commission describes as a cost-sharing model.
This means the private financial sector would provide loans (up to the full cost of study). The state would either purchase these loans or guarantee their repayment. Subject to appropriate legislative amendments, the South Africa Revenue Service would collect the repayments through the income tax system.
The loan-guaranteed model would be applied to undergraduate and post-graduate students as well as students or former students who carry historic indebtedness.
The Fees Must Fall movement has made it clear in the past that nothing less than free education for all, university and TVET college students, will be acceptable. The recommendations may give rise to renewed student protests.
The Heher Commission would like to see TVET colleges becoming the “institutions of first choice”, providing graduates who are ready for the workplace. TVET colleges have been regarded as the second-class option for students, and been stigmatised for providing an education that will retain existing inequalities in South African society.
In an effort to make technical and vocational tertiary education more appealing, the report also recommends that TVET students be given stipends where needed, which would cover the full cost of study.
The commission has recommended that government find some affordable means of providing student accommodation, which has been another Fees Must Fall concern as many students have struggled to afford accommodation.
The Commission also recommends that application fees and registration fees should be scrapped. It suggests the creation of an education fund to which companies, individuals, international aid agencies, and others could donate towards the development of higher education.
The Commission says it recognises the right to further education for all and the constitutional duty of the State to make such education “progressively available and accessible through reasonable measures”.
It is unclear what will become of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) if the Commission recommendations are accepted. The report states that NSFAS, “even in its new student-centred guise, is unlikely to produce a significant proportion of successful students or to improve materially on its present gross inefficiency in the collection of loan debts”.
Judge Jonathan Heher handed over the report to the President on 30 August 2017. President Jacob Zuma has appointed two committees, led by Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe and Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba, to consider the recommendations made by the Commission and his response will be released once the ministers have concluded their work.
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