File picture: Henk Kruger/ANA
As universities open this week, they are faced with the dilemma of how best to achieve the government’s free education policy, announced by President Jacob Zuma on the eve of the ANC conference at Nasrec, Johannesburg, in December.

At a recent meeting in Tshwane for the universities and the Department of Higher Education, it was decided each university would determine its own fees.

They would then need to be approved by the institution’s council. In turn, the charges would be paid by the government through the department.

The new funding scheme brings to the fore questions about whether this constitutes a more sustainable deal compared to existing ones that address issues of accessibility for historically disadvantaged communities, as well as whether it's a positive step towards a more feasible and inclusive transformation agenda.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, access to higher education has been a priority. This was, and is, evidenced by government initiatives such as the setting up of the National Commission on Higher Education by the Nelson Mandela government in 1995.

The commission's report proposed that South Africa establish a single, co-ordinated national education system that would promote increased access for the historically disadvantaged black majority.

In addition, the Green Paper on Higher Education was published in 1996, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) - a statutory body under the Department of Higher Education - was introduced in the late 1990s, as well as a National Plan for Higher Education in 2001 that pushed for equality and increased access.

The National Development Plan 2030 equally addresses issues of inequality, poverty alleviation and accessibility.

In order to tackle some of the issues raised in the NDP, and as a response to the much-heated #FeesMustFall protests by students in 2015 and 2016, the Zuma administration put another commission in place.

The commission assessed the feasibility of making higher education and training free.

Its report acknowledges the universal right to education, and the state’s constitutional duty to make the right accessible and meaningful, particularly for historically disadvantaged communities.

Despite previous and existing proposals, as well as funding schemes such as the NSFAS, access to higher education is limited to a few, with 41% of 18-to-24-year-olds, mostly black, South Africans, remaining outside the university system.

The commission’s report, however, notes that while higher education is of great importance in actualising the desires and aspirations encapsulated in the NDP, financial resources remain limited to providing “free education” to all, including disadvantaged communities.

On that basis, the commission’s report proposes a cost-sharing model to fund university students. This is in the form of an income-contingent loan scheme for all students, with a provision to opt out. The state would either purchase the loans or guarantee their repayment.

At the ANC conference in December, President Zuma announced that the government would extend fully subsidised free higher education to poor and working-class students from this year.

The new funding deal also entails an increase in subsidies to universities from 0.7% to 1% of the gross domestic product over the next five years.

New ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa has equally reiterated the party’s commitment to free tertiary education, but without explicitly indicating whether he endorsed the new Zuma free education policy.

According to his statement at the ANC’s 106th anniversary last month, Ramaphosa highlighted some of the recommendations in the commission’s report such as “providing full bursaries for tuition and study materials to qualifying South African students and public TVET (technical vocation education and training) colleges and universities, and subsidised accommodation or transport capped at specific levels for those qualifying, starting with first-time entry students in 2018”.

He also noted that existing funding schemes such as the NSFAS be renewed this year, and that the loans be converted to full bursaries in future.

Yet, in contrast to the NSFAS loan scheme, the bursaries to be paid by the government through the Department of Higher Education in the new funding scheme will not be capped.

The fee allocation will also vary as each university is allowed to set its own charges.

While the new free education policy is at an early stage, there are positive indications that this might present an opportunity to begin to address a more inclusive policy, and to make this right accessible and meaningful to historically disadvantaged and neglected communities.

However, grey areas remain in terms of how the new funding deal will be fully achieved, as well as the implications of the differential fee charges across South Africa’s 21 universities of higher learning.

The differences might signal new dilemmas around accessibility and inclusivity, if not closely monitored.

For now, what remains to be seen in practical terms is the amount to be allocated to higher education in Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba's much-awaited 2018 Budget announcement.

* Cecilia Lwiindi Nedziwe is a research co-ordinator at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Star