Varsity chaos not fee inquiry's baby

by Jonisayi Maromo

Johannesburg - The commission of inquiry into higher education fees, established by President Jacob Zuma, has its sights set on finding a long-term solution, Judge Jonathan Arthur Heher said on Wednesday. It wasn’t empowered or asked to investigate issues currently rocking the sector, the inquiry chairperson said in Pretoria.

Police arrest Zainub Patel and her unidentified boyfriend near the Wits Origins entrance in Braamfontein on Wednesday for allegedly being part of an unruly group of protesting #FeesMustFall students.   Picture: Antoine de RasPolice advance towards protesting Wits students in Braamfontein on Wednesday.   Picture: Antoine de Ras

Judge Heher said only the government had the power to address the more immediate challenges relating to tertiary education fees.

He said his inquiry was at a preliminary stage.

“Because the goal is a long-term one, the terms of our commission have been so structured that the real question is only to be answered towards the last stages of this commission: Is free education feasible? The first set of the inquiry was introductory and designed to deal with ideological issues, issues of principles and an understanding of the real problems we’re facing,” Judge Heher said.

“What we have been very much interested in hearing from those who have participated is what their view is on fee-free education. If so, what fee-free education should extend to."

While his commission was not empowered to decide on the structure of education, participants had urged the inquiry to probe, in a financing context, the possibility of restructuring the system.

“The point is made that we have a pyramidal structure which puts the universities at the bottom, therefore with a much broader base of students, and the TVET colleges at the top, therefore with a limited point beyond which their students cannot extend. Almost everybody who knows anything about education has said that will not work.”

Judge Heher said indications so far were that the college system needed to be broadened to enable it to provide fundamental practical skills that the economy urgently needed. Such an agreement would transfer the university component to the top of the pyramid, where there would be fewer but high-skilled individuals.

Calls for free higher education have been rekindled recently, with violence and disruption of classes at several universities.

On Monday, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande announced that tertiary education institutions were each permitted to determine their own fee increases for next year. The government recommended that the increases not exceed 8 percent.

Last year, some university campuses were shut down after the #FeesMustFall campaign.