President Jacob Zuma is concluding consultations on the report.
Cape Town - With tensions rising among university students who are awaiting a decision on fee increments for next year, a growing concern looms over the cost of funding an overpopulated higher education system.

The #FeesMustFall movement is gaining traction again as the country’s universities wait for the release of the fees commission report before making a decision on fee increments.

On Saturday, the Presidency indicated that President Jacob Zuma was finalising the processing of the report and would this coming week conclude consultations with relevant ministers to ensure that the government can implement his decision.

Read: Fees commission report expected to be released soon - presidency

As the country waits for the decision on free higher education, sporadic protests have flared up again, with some institutions calling for a national day of action to force the government’s hand.

This week, Finance Minster Malusi Gigaba indicated that the government had already made large allocations to higher education with the budget increasing from R77billion this year to a projected R97bn for 2020 and 2021.

And if the government were to fund studies for about 40% of students, it would face a funding shortfall of just over R61bn.

Economist Dawie Roodt said the government simply couldn’t afford to pay for free education. “I don’t know why the president is sitting on the report. It might be that the report would indicate that there is significant financial distress among students and that might put pressure on him to (order) the minister of finance to spend more money on the students,” he said.

“But the reality is, looking at the minister of finance’s point of view, we have reached the end of the road and we have run out of money. It is so bad; I expect the rating agency to downgrade South Africa any day now.

“Can we afford to pay for the students? The answer is yes, but we must cut something else. Students are very organised and they are vocal and can cause a lot of damage. And it is a dripping tap that receives the attention and that is unfortunate because it simply means the bigger the noise you make, the (more) money and attention you get.

“We are in deep trouble. The government cannot afford to subsidise universities any more. We have over-extended ourselves already and we have to cut somewhere.”

Former statistician-general Pali Lehohla drew a grim picture on the state of universities while releasing the financial statistics for 2016. Government grants already account for 44.6% of universities’ revenue which stood at R30bn, while fees accounted for R21.6bn.

Lehohla expressed concern over the high number of students who remained in the system, jeopardising the possibility of fee education.

“The higher education system is clogged up. You see, the number of blacks going to universities has increased post-1994 but the progression ratio is failing the system. There are less resources and this forces many black students to drop out,” he said.

Also read: CPUT, UCT prepare for exams despite #FeesMustFall protests

The Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), which has been crippled by violent students protests over fees, has what they call an average throughput for graduates. For a three-year diploma, 32% do it in the minimum time, 48% in four years and 55% in five years.

“Naturally it is in the student’s best interest as well as the institution that they finish in the minimum time and not stay in the system,” said CPUT acting vice-chancellor Chris Nhlapo.

“Every student who drops out or repeats subjects represents a loss of revenue to the university from a subsidy and fees point of view. The more significant cost is the lost opportunity to the students in terms of time, potential career earnings and the loss to the economy of more highly trained workers.”

Mandisa Mdikwana, a former CPUT student, said it took her close to six years to complete a three-year diploma as she couldn’t afford it. “The first year I had a National Student Financial Aid Scheme loan but couldn’t get it in the second year. I ended up failing modules because I was spending most of my time working and worrying about having enough money for fees,” she said.

Weekend Argus