'Fee-free students must repay some'

Pretoria - Beneficiaries of the fee-free education should be required to pay at least some of the money back, the Private Higher Education Interest Group said on Thursday.

The group was making its submission to the commission of inquiry into higher education and training, or Fees Commission, at Diep In die Berg, east of Pretoria.

A group of black solidarity activists interrupted the fees commission in Cape Town on Tuesday over their suspensions during #FeesMustFall protests. The group confronted UCT vice-chancellor Max Price and would not let him leave without giving answers on why five students were interdicted. Picture: David Ritchie. Credit: Independent Media

Its representative, Dr Felicity Coughlan, said the gap funding for the so-called missing middle could be an idea worth exploring to create tiered funding.

However, this would only be effective if the level at which the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) eligibility stopped was raised. Coughlan is the director and head of the Independent Institute of Education.

She said the missing middle was too large and getting bigger, which meant higher cut-off for eligibility for support from NSFAS or any other funding.

“Efficiencies are needed to ensure that support money is well used and can quickly be returned to the system to support others.

"Hence, we propose that beneficiaries to the fee-free system must bring back some of the money so it can be recycled to assist others in need,” she said.

Unisa vice-chancellor and principal Professor Mandla Makhanya concurred and said looking at long-term, fee-free education was unsustainable as there were already challenges as a result of financial restrictions.

“The university is experiencing an increase of student debt; it appears that students struggle to pay their fees regardless of how minimum they are,” Makhanya said.

Regardless of financial restrictions, Makhanya said they were working on in-sourcing cleaning, gardening, catering and security services.

He told the commission head Judge Jonathan Heher, Advocate Gregory Ally and other experts that fee-free education would put most South African universities at financial risk unless the Treasury was able and willing to make up for the shortfall.

Meanwhile, due to disruptions by some student groupings, the commission announced that it had suspended hearings in Kimberly and Bloemfontein.

In Pretoria, the hearing continues today with the Department of Basic Education and DA Students Organisation among those expected to make submissions.