Voices

Free education: Missing middle will get aid

2018-12-28 15:22

In the article last week – Missing middle students thrown to the wolves – City Press claimed that government was “doing an abrupt about-turn on affordable tuition”.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are working towards affordable fees and sustainable institutions.

Although it is correct that the “gap grant” is being phased out, institutions are receiving additional funding to ensure financial sustainability and educational quality.

This year government implemented an expanded financial aid scheme for students from families with a gross annual income of less than R350 000.

This is being phased in for first-time entry students into universities over a five-year period.

This is a significant government commitment, making education accessible for students who qualify but are unable to afford to go to university.

When the former president announced the implementation of “fully subsidised free higher education and training for students from poor and working class families” last December, he announced that a substantial additional investment would be made to increase the government subsidy from 0.68% of gross domestic product (GDP) last year to 1% of GDP within five years.

The reason for increasing these subsidies is to ensure that institutions are effectively funded and able to set affordable fees in higher education.

In 2018/19 the block grant to universities increased by 14.6% compared with the 2017/18 block grant.

It will increase again in 2019/20 by on average 19.5% on the 2018/19 allocations.

University vice-chancellors and council chairpersons understand that it is necessary to ensure affordable university fees for all and, at the same time, work towards sustainable universities for the future.

A social compact between government and universities is required to ensure this outcome.

The days of individual institutions deciding on fee increases outside a collective national compact are over.

The #FeesMustFall protests of 2015 were driven in part by fee inflation over a number of years and were sparked by the announcement that one university would be increasing its fees by 11% in 2016.

The higher education and training department has worked with institutions to arrive at an agreed increase for next year’s tuition fee.

This year and last year the gap grant covered the fee increase for students from families with an income of less than R600 000 a year.

It was R2.5 billion last year and R2.6 billion this year.

Individual students applied for the grant which, if they qualified, was paid into their fee accounts by the government.

Next year’s gap grant will be incorporated into the overall block grant funding to universities. This will allow universities to continue to support these students until they graduate.

First-time fee-paying students will pay the actual tuition fee charged for next year.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) will also pay the actual tuition fee for students who qualify.

Individual universities have plans in place to manage any challenges that arise and to advise first-time entry students who do not qualify for Nsfas funding on possible options for financial support if required.

The department is in discussion with universities and funders in the private sector to identify other forms of support for students in the so called “missing middle”, from families earning within the R350 000 to R600 000 gross income bracket.

Individual universities, using the additional funds they have at their disposal from having the gap grant incorporated into their block grants, are also free to offer discounts to students within these income brackets.

Growing investment recognises the strategic importance of higher education to the development of South Africa.

It will enable students to access and succeed in higher education, to ensure the sustainability and success of the university system, as well as to develop the mid- to high-level human skills and capabilities needed to drive economic growth.

Dianna Parker is a deputy director-general responsible for the university branch at the higher education and training department

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January 20 2019