File picture: Kim Ludbrook/EPA
Cape Town - As the excitement of the 2017 matric results begins to fade, more questions are being asked of the government’s ability to fund free tertiary education for 2018, estimated at more than R12 billion.

Of the 651 707 pupils who sat for the exams at the end of 2017, at least 153 610 received a pass rate which will allow them to study at university; 161 133 are eligible to study for a diploma, while 86 265 obtained higher certificates and can register to study at a Technical and Vocational and Training college (TVET).

A total of 497 schools achieved a 100% pass rate 7.3% of all schools.

The National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), a bursary and loan scheme that receives funding from the government, has already received 300 000 new applications for 2018 but said the budget would only be announced by the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Hlengiwe Mkhize, after consultation with the finance minister.

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But last year NSFAS funded more than 530 000 students from working-class families whose income was up to R122 000 a year at a budget of over R17 billion.

A spokesperson for NSFAS, Kagisho Mamabolo, said of those funded, 278 027 were at university and 255 725 at TVET colleges.

Despite the Heher Commission’s finding that there was currently no capacity for the state to provide free tertiary education to all students, President Jacob Zuma announced last month that the government would subsidise free higher education for poor and working-class students.

He said this would refer to those currently enrolled to TVET colleges or university students from households with a combined annual income of up to R350 000 by this academic year.

The students categorised as poor and working class will be funded and supported through government grants, not loans.

However, the commission recommended a model which would see commercial banks issuing government guaranteed loans to students.

Mamabolo confirmed that the existing loans would be converted to bursaries and students would not be liable for repayment.

He said the organisation would review its business model to implement these changes for the 2018 academic year and in future.

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Former higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande has punched holes in Zuma’s announcement on free higher education, asking where the money will come from.

Nzimande, general secretary of the SACP, who was dumped from the Cabinet by Zuma, warned yesterday there was a “train” coming if the free higher education matter was not handled properly.

“Can we afford free higher education as announced on December 16 and at the same time have a nuclear deal? Can we do those things, where is this money going to come from? We are not against free higher education, but where are we going to get the money?” he asked.

The Economic Freedom Fighters have since called on those eligible to study at tertiary institutions to register, sparking fears that the opening of the institutions would descend into chaos.

Mkhize has had to explain that free higher education will be phased in over five years.

Speaking at the commemoration of the death of former SACP general secretary Joe Slovo at the Avalon Cemetery in Soweto, Nzimande said the party would neither allow for Value Added Tax (VAT) to be increased or the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) to be used for free higher education.

“We want to say as the SACP now are not going to allow the increase of VAT to fund free higher education, because that is stealing from the poor to give to the poor,” he said. “We are not going to support for the taking away of UIF money or of Public Investment Corporation (PIC) money in order to fund free higher education, because you are essentially saying the poor must fund its own children in higher education,” he said.

The Treasury has reportedly said it was still looking for the money to fund free higher education.

This comes against the backdrop of a budget shortfall of R40 billion announced by Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba during the medium term budget last year.

When asked whether Treasury had money to fund free education, spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete declined to comment but said there were models they were working on.

“We are working on models which will be announced at the budget next month,” said Tshwete.

Student representatives at institutions across the country say they’re also in the dark as to how free education will be funded.

Stellenbosch SRC chairperson, Lwando Nkamisa said they would meet with stakeholders who they hoped would clarify the matter.

The EFF Student Command warned against making empty promises to provide free education. The command’s president, Peter Keetse, said: “The man (Zuma) has announced free education for everyone. As the EFF, we are still calling for all those students who academically qualify to go to their respective institutions and apply. If the man was lying about free education, he must apologise to all South Africans and say that he was just excited.”

The pass rate for the 2017 matric class was at 75.1%, an improvement of 2.6% from 72.5% in 2016.

Education experts cautioned that just focusing on the traditional pass rate was flawed and the focus should not only be on those who reached matric.

A senior researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University, Dr Nic Spaull said: “If you take the numbers passing matric and divide by those in Grade 10 two years earlier, the real matric pass rate is 37%.

“Even more concerning is the fact that this pass rate, what we call the throughput pass rate, has been declining for three years from 41% in 2015 to 40% in 2016 and to 37% in 2017,” Spaull said.

He said the Free State, which came top nationally with a pass rate of 86%, had the largest dropout of pupils between Grades 10 and 12 compared to the other provinces.

“Essentially they are culling or kicking out their weakest learners, which artificially raises their pass rate. The Free State’s throughput pass rate dropped from 43% to 36% between 2016 and 2017, the largest drop of all provinces,” he said.

He said there had been a large decline in the number of people writing matric in 2017 - about 75000 fewer compared to 2016 or about 12%.

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