President Jacob Zuma Picture: Reuters

Cape Town - The announcement by President Jacob Zuma that government will introduce fully subsidised free higher education and training for poor and working-class undergraduate students, while welcomed, is completely uncosted and therefore must be seen for what it is, playing politics with the hopes and futures of millions of young people, the Democratic Alliance said on Saturday.

"The statement is a combination of populist politicking, deceptive language, uncosted proposals, and one positively dangerous assertion," DA spokeswoman Belinda Bozzoli said.

Zuma waited until the very end of the year so that he could make a splash at the African National Congress elective conference, while students, their families, and the institutions they wished to attend anxiously awaited news.

Read: Poor, working class students to get free higher education, says Zuma

"Such cheap politicking is appalling. Unsurprisingly, his statement is full of promises, but lacking actual implementation details," she said.

Zuma had said that full-cost “free” education would be offered to poor and working-class students, students with a family income of less than R350,000. This was nothing new – it was simply a continuation of what the ANC had always said. Students from the “fees must fall” movement would be disappointed.

This limited offer of “free education for the poor” had not been financially feasible. It would inevitably entail an increase in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) budget by at least 100 percent, from the current R11 billion to about R22 billion. In fact, the number of students in this bracket was entirely unknown and this proposal probably entailed an even higher number. It could bring the cost of NSFAS up to R30 billion.

Under Zuma's new "plan", NSFAS would require a massive expansion to provide funding grants to students from families earning less than R350 000. Major administrative problems had hampered NSFAS this year, with some applicants waiting months for a response, Bozzoli said.

Zuma proposed that all NSFAS loans be converted to grants, thus rejecting entirely all the work that had been done by the Heher Commission of Inquiry, NSFAS, and others, into various sorts of loan schemes which would provide the fiscus with some return on its outlay. The scheme would clearly need vastly improved systems to handle the expanded volume of applications.

"We welcome the announcement that university subsidies will be increased from 0.68 of GDP to one percent of GDP over the next five years, as it has been something we have fought for over the past several years. However, this increase is completely uncosted.

"Furthermore, in the first year of this increase, the presidency has decreed that the increase goes straight into funding his arbitrary decree that 'no fee increase' will need be paid by students whose families earn under R600 000. This too is uncosted. In previous years it cost something like R2.5 billion," she said.

Zuma had also said that technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges fees would be fully subsidised over the full period of study rather than just the first year, which was currently the case, and that TVET student grants would be expanded to include a number of other costs. This was welcome, but once again there was no indication that the budget would be able to carry this cost.

Zuma proposed that investment in infrastructure, particularly student accommodation, would increase – again without any figures; and that the massive problem of student debt would be “addressed by the department”, without any clear indication as to how this would be addressed.

"The further promises of funding for student accommodation – especially at TVETs – sounds pleasing until we remember that the department of higher education (DHET) has no plans or funding in place to address this crucial accommodation shortage. The DHET has admitted that it doesn’t even know how many student accommodation beds are currently available at TVETs.

"The DA stands by the three-tiered model for funding that we proposed to the Heher Commission. Our model is designed to keep the system stable, and at the same time to ensure that 'missing middle' students are not left behind, while poor students are covered financially.

"Under our model, the poorest students would receive loans, convertible to grants upon success, which would cover all their costs. Students in middle-level income bands would qualify for a smaller portion of support, graded depending on their family income. Students who are able to pay their own fees would be required to do so – and certainly not be penalized for doing so," Bozzoli said.

"Lurking within the president’s statement is one line which raises alarm: a statement that the 'hierarchical and autonomous character' of universities is of great concern to the ANC. This is nothing more than an implicit threat to the constitutionally protected principle of academic freedom and university autonomy.

"We fear that this statement will cause more harm than good. It makes unsustainable and uncosted offers to students, raises expectations and fails to indicate that the huge bureaucracy needed to implement it is in place. We remain concerned that the start of the academic year of 2018 will entail turmoil and protest, and frustration on the part of students and the institutions that they attend," Bozzoli said.

African News Agency/ANA