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Clarity on free education sought

Some activists have welcomed President Jacob Zuma’s announcement on free higher education, but others raised concerns on how it will be implemented.
Some activists have welcomed President Jacob Zuma’s announcement on free higher education, but others raised concerns on how it will be implemented.
Image: STOCK IMAGE

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) which is tasked with implementing President Jacob Zuma’s bold free higher education plan next year is scrambling to find a solution to deal with an administrative burden placed on it by the shock decision.

Zuma announced on Saturday that all first-year students from poor working-class background with a combined annual income of less than R350000 would qualify for free tertiary education.

The announcement has been met with mixed reactions by student activists who led the #FeesMustFall movement.

Yesterday NSFAS CEO Steven Zwane said the fund did not know whether it will have to write off all the debts of students who had not repaid their loans or not.

He admitted that it was not going to be easy to deal with the changes because of a lot of administration burden.

Zwane said this week they will meet with key role players to get clarity on how some of the things will work.

“We have been given a mandate to manage the funds that will no longer be serving as loans but grants. “To manage this we will work with institutions of higher learning to help us with the data we will need. We have to up our capacity to deliver and the country should be excited that students have been given free access to higher education,” Zwane said.

He said the fund would seek clarity on how to practically implement Zuma’s plan.

Some student activists welcomed the news but others also raised concerns on how this would be implemented.

Zuma said loans already extended to existing students by the NSFAS would be converted into grants. The Department of Higher Education and Training estimated this would add R12.4-billion to the cost of tertiary education.

Activist, Chumani Maxwele – best known for his involvement in the Rhodes Must Fall and #FeesMustFall movements – welcomed the announcement.

“That’s what we wanted, but it will require implementation. We have Walter Sisulu and Fort Hare universities with 95% of students belonging to NSFAS, so this will mean students will have access to institutions of higher learning,” Maxwele said.

Another student activist Vusi Mahlangu said the timing of the announcement was questionable and looked opportunistic in light of the ANC conference.

“We acknowledge the announcement as a step forward. It is major concession on the side of the government,” Mahlangu said.

CEO at Universities SA Ahmed Bawa said the announcement came as a surprise.

“There were no consultations. We want to get more details as this model is unsustainable.

“We are also worried that it can be a very dangerous thing for the university system two or three years down the line if the government says there is no money,” Bawa said.

Wits University vice-chancellor Professor Adam Habib said the Department of Higher Education and Training met with all vice-chancellors but the free education discussion did not arise.

“We need to clarify how the financing of free education would work.

“If free education financing is not done properly, quality in univs (sic) will decline...” he said.

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