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Talks over free tertiary study for the poor

The South African government is in talks with universities and other higher education institutions over the possibility of curbing fee increases and introducing free tertiary study for poor students.

On Saturday, Higher Education and Training director-general Gwebinkundla Qonde told The Sunday Independent the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) would be “taken to the next level” to cover as many students as possible.

Last month, the education and health subcommittee of the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) noted that rising university fees were a threat and recommended that they be curbed, as they had the potential to bankrupt the NSFAS.

At the University of Pretoria, a year of study (tuition only) can cost more than R54 000, while at Wits, fees are R53 000 a year, depending on the field and level of study.

The subcommittee undertook to “pursue actively the policy of free higher education for the poor” through NSFAS.

“There is a view that the question of free education is taking a back seat. Free education and the success or passing of students are linked,” said the subcommittee.

Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande is a member of the subcommittee, which is chaired by Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor.

Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga is also a member of the subcommittee.

In its discussions at last month’s ANC NEC lekgotla, the subcommittee also raised concerns about the R2.5 billion shortfall in NSFAS funding, and asked the government to identify funds to address it.

The subcommittee also said alternative sources of funding were required to address the inadequate funding of poor students who did not qualify for NSFAS support.

The subcommittee said loan funding could be sourced from development finance institutions such as the Public Investment Corporation to address the “missing-middle” – students who do not qualify for NSFAS funding but cannot afford fees. The “missing middle” would also be addressed through a loan scheme.

Last year, NSFAS provided R8.5bn in loans and bursaries to more than 400 000 students at public further education and training colleges and universities.

The scheme pays the average national full cost of study – R64 000 for this year’s academic year.

Last year, NSFAS recovered R444.4 million in loan repayments directly from repaying debtors, while another R95.2m was received from funders in settlement of outstanding loans for debtors who met the funders’ settlement criteria.

Higher education institutions returned about R173.3m to NSFAS from credit balances on students’ accounts.

The objectives of NSFAS include maximising the recovery of outstanding loans from all eligible debtors employed in both the formal and informal sectors.

The subcommittee has promised to crack down on abuse of the system by students and come up with concrete strategies to stop student protests over funding at the beginning of every year.

Earlier this year, the NSFAS said it would use other government databases to check the information provided in students’ applications, including the Department of Home Affairs, to check the authenticity of IDs and verify family details, and the SA Revenue Service, to authenticate employment.



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