To increase or not to increase tertiary fees?

South Africa as a country and its citizenry, the National Treasury and the department of high education and training under minister Blade Nzimande remained in a catch-two situation this week as the department had to decide how to approach the pending increase of tuition fees at universities across the country due next year.

With the widely spread protest actions which adversely affected learning and teaching and threatened to destroy the continued existence of universities last year still fresh in their minds, authorities administering higher learning and training remained cautious about announcing any increase in university fees.

In fact, the situation has become so serious that those in authority remained undecided as to what action to take. If they increased the fees, students had threatened to make the country ungovernable; If they don’t increase fees, the country could slide into a massive countrywide protest from tax payers who will have to fund the close to R100bl bill. What will Nzimande do next?

The department has to urgently decide what format they would use to arrest this controversial situation. According to the Treasury which addressed the commission of inquiry into free higher education last Friday, “state resources remained strained and no additional funding had been budgeted for next year”.

Already, universities need a minimum of increase of eight percent in their annual income for next year. Media reports this week quoted the Treasury as having told a consultative meeting between Nzimande and the University Council Chairs Forum (UCCF) that “an income increase of below eight percent is likely to compromise the financial health of as many as 17 universities next year”.

In anticipation of a no fee increase situation over the weekend, the Higher Education Transformation Network (HETN) welcomed the current work of the commission of inquiry into the feasibility of free Higher Education and Training.

In its statement, the HETN welcomed the ongoing debate that the country was having around free education and “we wish to reiterate that free higher education is possible in South Africa and should benefit the poorest of the poor.

“The HETN has always maintained that there are so many aspects of transformation within the terrain of higher education. Funding is a major one now and it speaks to access and the sustainability of the system”, the HETN said.

The network admitted that they were part of various efforts aimed at restructuring the funding model of higher education institutions and had been very vocal on the need for free quality higher education for the poor in South Africa. The arrest of some of the students who took part in the Fees Must Fall movement was met with serious reservations by a wide range of forces including members of our communities to an extent that calls were made for their release. “Beyond the issues of Fees must fall, we want to seriously move towards free quality higher education for the poor. The Network will ensure that the year 2016 becomes a game changer in relation to higher education.

“The HETN would like to reiterate that unless something drastic is done to bring about free quality higher education for poor students, we will continue to experience protests in our universities and colleges. We still call for the amendment of the skills development levy act in order to increase the contributions of companies by another one percent which should be ring-fenced and be used to fund free higher education.

“We are of the view that South Africa should broaden its research in countries such as Cuba, Brazil, Germany and the UK in order to learn from their models on free higher education and find a way to implement such for our students here at home. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) should continue as a prime funder that gets us closer to free education.

The Network believes that we can either be radical or moderate in our approach to transformation, but the biggest and central question is: What should a new African university look like in South Africa today and going forward? Having said that, we welcome some of the interventions that the minister made where transformation was failing but we believe that transformation is non-negotiable because it is necessary for access, success, equality, diversity, sustainability and excellence”, Hendrick Makaneta HETN National Spokesperson said.

We say the current situation remains a great challenge for government, national treasury and authorities in higher education and needs sober minds to find a lasting solution to this tricky impasse. In the meantime, while we appreciate their challenges in this matter, we call on all affected students to pause and think about the consequences of another “Feesmustfall” protest.