Varsity fee limbo undermines education

Students and other role players in higher education are left in limbo  with the 2018 academic year fast approaching, the writer argues. / Ruvan Boshoff
Students and other role players in higher education are left in limbo with the 2018 academic year fast approaching, the writer argues. / Ruvan Boshoff

The inordinate delays in taking decisions on the university fees issue are driving many people round the bend.

The Heher commission got extensions to complete its report, and then after receiving it, the president kept it under lock and key for more than two months. It seems only the loud howls of protest forced the president to release the report.

Although the president was said to be considering the report, he released it without making a decision. Was he considering the report or was he just sitting on it? What about the rumours that some young man, not the Department of Higher Education and Training, was reading it and making some outlandish recommendations that would have been in line with his age and distance from the department?

No one knows what the government accepts or rejects among the various recommendations contained in the report. This leaves all role players in the higher education space in limbo.

Meanwhile, in the midst of this lethargy and indecision, the 2018 academic year is fast approaching. Institutions of higher learning need to finalise their budgets and parents need to make plans for the education of their children. How do the institutions and parents plan in the absence of information on the fees structure for the 2018 academic year?

Is this another manifestation of the gross ineptitude we are now accustomed to in the state?

Is it the same bumbling we have seen at the SABC, Prasa, Eskom, NPA, SAPS and others? What is the point of appointing a commission of inquiry to investigate an urgent issue, like university fees, and then sitting on your hands when the report is put on your desk?

The education of our young is one of the most potent weapons at our disposal to fight and defeat some of our national ills, such as poverty, joblessness, underdevelopment and inequality. We cannot afford to mess it up any further.

As it stands, we know our education system leaves much to be desired, from early childhood development, through to basic and higher education. In fact, higher education accounts for only 5% of our young. The bigger problems are staring us in the face at the levels below tertiary education.

We know our kids cannot read, write and calculate, and that this has a huge impact on the high failure rate of our students at university. Our children fare badly in international assessment tests.

The recommendation by the Heher commission to have registration fees scrapped at all our institutions of higher learning is most welcome. The idea of scrapping fees altogether for Technical and Vocational Education and Training colleges is inspired. A similarly inspired improvement of these colleges is required to give our young and the economy a leg up.

However, some of us were stunned by the commission recommendation that all students, regardless of economic status, be given government-guaranteed study loans by commercial banks. How on earth do you expect a state that is broke to take on such a mammoth financial responsibility?

In fact, one of the maladies of our education system is the frequent changes of the syllabi and processes. Under the present circumstances, it would be prudent to strengthen the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) in terms of administration and the size of its allocations.

We should give poor students full bursaries that cover tuition fees, books, accommodation and food allowances to ensure that they are afforded a fair chance to succeed. A mechanism must be found to assist the missing middle at the same time as we increase allocations to universities.

In despair, an African academic working in our country was asking me the other day why we don't learn from their experiences. He says one of the reasons there are so many students and academics from many African countries in South Africa is because a lot of universities on the continent have been weakened by inadequate funding. It is nice to proclaim free university education, but it is another to sustain it over the long term. He feared we are in danger of destroying our universities.

Let's take the necessary decisions so that our higher education sector can work fairly, effectively and productively.

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