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Thursday, 17 December 2015 05:50

Task team submits report on higher education funding

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The Presidential Task Team, which was set up to investigate and make recommendations on the short-term student funding challenges at universities, has submitted its report to President Jacob Zuma.

The Presidency said the Task Team had to report on possible solutions to the immediate funding challenges at universities.

“The task team also had to look at the implementation of the agreement on the zero percent fee increment for the 2016 academic year, and the shortfall in National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding for students registered in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 academic years,” the Presidency said.

The task team needed to advise on a short-term plan to mitigate against possible student protests and unrest at the start of the 2016 academic year.

The task team has identified four key factors that could lead to potential protests early in 2016, for which universities need to prepare for.

The factors include students protesting against the upfront fee or registration payments at the start of the 2016 academic year.

Students could take to the streets because of the NSFAS shortfall, which refers to accumulated student debt accrued by students who qualified for NSFAS loans but were either unfunded or underfunded due to insufficient funds over the period 2013 to 2015, and therefore have accrued university debt.

Students could be unhappy about the funding challenges experienced by students who do not qualify for NSFAS funding because their income is above the NSFAS threshold. Students can potential protest about the increased demand for academic spaces by new first time entry students and previous financial dropouts in the university system.

The Presidency said the committee made a number of short-term recommendations to address financial challenges, as well as a range of short to medium term recommendations to address other issues discussed in the report.

The short-term recommendations on funding include the short-term solution for the zero percent fee increment.

“R2.3 billion will be made available to address this shortfall. Government and the universities will make contributions towards addressing the shortfall,” the Presidency said.

Another recommendation was that upfront fee and registration payments should be implemented across the system for those who can afford to pay.

“Students who meet the NSFAS means test should not be required to pay upfront payments,” the Presidency said.

The NSFAS shortfall has been quantified at R4.582 billion. The report recommends that R2.543 billion of this amount must be made available from the fiscus, in the form of loans to provide short-term debt relief to 71 753 students who were funded inadequately or were unable to access financial aid over the 2013 to 2015 academic years.

“The further R2.039 billion is required in the 2016/17 financial year to ensure that currently unfunded continuing students receive NSFAS support in the 2016 academic year.

“This amount will also be made available through reprioritisation from the fiscus,” the Presidency said

President Zuma has extended his appreciation to the task team for the intensive work they undertook in less than two months.

“I believe that the recommendations will assist all of us as we pursue our mission to ensure that no poor, academically deserving student is denied access to higher education and training, and that affordable higher education for all is achieved, while ensuring sustainable quality public higher education provisioning for our country.

“I will soon announce the members of the commission that will look at, among others, the introduction of free higher education to improve access for the children of the poor and the working class,” President Zuma said.

Work has been ongoing to finalise the terms of reference for this commission.