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South Africa: Fee Commission’s report – a quick fix to subsidise students?

On 13 November the long-awaited report of the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training (HET) in South Africa was finally released by the country’s President Jacob Zuma. The preparation of the report was initiated in January 2016 as the government’s response to the unrests on university campuses across the country. The Commission of Inquiry (Fees Commission) was set up then with an aim to investigate the feasibility of fee-free HET in South Africa, to report on the findings and provide a set of recommendations to the government on the future funding of HE and student support in the country.
The 752-page report was submitted to President Zuma at the end of August, only to be released almost three months later. The verdict is clear: the moment is not ripe yet to meet students’ requests because “there is insufficient capacity in the state to provide totally free higher education and training to all who are unable to finance their own education, let alone to all students, whether in need or not”, it is stated in the report. Instead, the report provides recommendations that rely on a familiar loan scheme, stating that if adopted, the proposed model should relieve the state of an enormous burden in financing student education.
Amongst other measures, the report proposes increasing public investment in HET to at least 1% of the GDP to align with economies of comparable scale. Emphasising the need to focus more on subsidies for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), it is further proposed to transfer R50 billion (approx. EUR 3 billion) from the Unemployment Insurance Fund for the development of TVET colleges. TVET students are to receive fully subsidised education from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), so far offered to university students, while NSFAS for university students is to be replaced by Income-contingency loans (ICL) for all, without means tests. ICL are paid off only upon graduation if or when a graduate receives an income above a certain threshold and can be written off after a certain period of time, the debt for which the state is to be liable. 
A novelty in the report is the proposal to set up an education fund where all interested individuals, companies and international foundations and agencies can donate for HE development, bursaries, and similar support initiatives. The use of online and blended learning is seen as a possible set-off for the lack of funding for HET. The Commission furthermore proposed developing more student accommodation, prioritising historically disadvantaged institutions and using the potential of Public-Private Partnerships. 
In sum, the report purports that one of the benefits the proposed model would bring are more subsidies to universities, ensuring that university education is available and accessible to all who qualify for it. Not everyone shares this view, however. HE representatives express serious doubts about the solidity of the proposal and how much it has been thought-through. One of the major contentions is that subsidising students from the unemployment funds is a far cry from a sustainable solution and that it looks like “stealing from Peter to pay Paul”, as a South African colleague illustrated their view of the proposal.   DHET press release