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We were all sitting on the edge of our seats, constantly refreshing the Presidency website, just waiting for them to release the Fees Commission report. And, finally, there it was. The Fees Commission report, months in the making.

#FeesCommission: Too Little, Too Late?

And it was a bit of a let down.

In his statement releasing the report, President Jacob Zuma said:

The Inter-Ministerial Committee on Higher Education Funding led by the Minister in the Presidency Mr Jeff Radebe, and the Presidential Fiscal Committee whose lead Minister is the Minister of Finance, Mr Malusi Gigaba, are processing the report. I will make a pronouncement on the Report once the Ministers have concluded their work. I have decided to release the Report prior to the conclusion of our work in processing it so that the public can have an opportunity to study the report while we continue with the processing thereof.

The President, to my mind, has been dragging his feet with regards to the issue of free higher education. Either that, or he has some grand plan that he is slowly preparing to implement. Honestly, it could go either way.

The release of the Fees Commission Report now, as tensions continue to mount at campuses across the country, strikes me as irresponsible. To release the report months after its completion, yet before the Inter-Ministerial Committee has had a chance to finish its own work, is either a misstep by our President or, indeed, a carefully calculated act.

And I don't know which, to be honest.

The President has been dragging his feet

The Fees Commission Report makes it clear that there is no money for fee-free higher education for all in South Africa. Hardly a shocking statement, to my mind. Fee-free higher education for all was never really a viable option, at least not all at once.

ASIDE: Again, this isn't the space for me to pontificate on HOW I WOULD HAVE DONE IT or any such malarkey. But my opinions will be informing my analysis of the report and so it would be foolish of me to exclude them entirely.

While fee-free higher education for all is, according to the Report, not on the table, the Report does an admirable job of examining the issue and proposing ways forward. The Commission accepts that free higher education for all simply isn't viable and instead details alternatives.

Fee-free higher education: never a viable option

The recommendations made by the Report are many and varied, though most are not particularly groundbreaking (don't worry, I'll get to the meaty part of my criticisms in a bit). But first we need to examine the recommendations.

Hit "NEXT" below to keep reading.

So what exactly does the Fees Commission Report recommend? We've covered that before, and you can read that HERE, but I'll go into it again.

#FeesCommission: Recommendations

First off, the Commission recommends that government increase spending on Higher Education and Training to at least 1% of the GDP, bringing us in line with countries with similar economies.

The Commission further recommends that government pay special attention to Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges, as they are the most drastically underfunded tertiary institutes.

Secondly, the Commission recommends that the government develop additional student accommodation to combat the severe shortage thereof. Historically Disadvantaged Institutions, according to the report, should be prioritised.

Government must, according to the report, investigate whether or not online or blended learning would make a viable alternative in addressing challenges relating to funding and capacity. We've examined online learning before: MOOCs: is the future of education massive, open and online?

Additionally, the Fees Commission recommends that TVET Colleges be made entirely fee-free for students. Government will have to fully subsidise the TVET education of all students through grants, and no student must be partially funded.

TVET Colleges to be Fee-Free

Now, the biggest recommendation of the Fees Commission is the Income-Contingent Loan (ICL), which is proposed as an alternative to the current NSFAS system.

The Commission recommends that all students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, receive funding. This applies to all students, whether at public or private colleges/universities, regardless of their family background.

This funding is to come from a cost-sharing model, where the government guarantees the Income-Contingent Loans sourced from commercial banks.

These loans are then to be paid back by students after they graduate and meet a certain income threshold. If that threshold is not reached, government takes on secondary liability for the loans.

BUT WHAT DOES THAT ALL MEAN????!!!! I hear you cry. Worry not, for I shall explain!

Basically, students will borrow money from banks in order to finance their education. They will only be required to pay back the money:

  • After they graduate, and
  • When they start earning over a certain amount

Should the students not meet that income threshold, government will be responsible for paying back the loan, making this a government guaranteed income-contingent loan.

Finally, the Commission recommends that all application and registration fees be scrapped across the board.

Registration Fees to be Scrapped

So if that's what the Fees Commission says, where do we go from here? Will this work? Hit "NEXT" below to keep reading!

The Fees Commission Report makes it clear that the university sector is in dire straits: "The financial state of the university sector (before considering the demands for more affordable fees or free education) is not healthy and is unsustainable." (pg 79)

This right here is the real problem. Before we even stop to consider the #FeesMustFall protests and their demands for free education, we have to deal with this fact: our tertiary education system is broken, and not just financially. That column there does a good job of explaining it.

Anyway, if the Fees Commission report finds that the university sector is financially unhealthy and unsustainable, why has it taken this long for any appreciable action to be taken? And why did it take even longer for the Fees Commission to be made public? And what happens next?

All the Fees Commission Report has really done has created more questions than answers.

More Questions than Answers

And maybe that was the plan all along. Now we are forced to look to the Inter-Ministerial Committee and its findings based on the report, whenever those become public.

My biggest gripe with the Fees Commission has more to do with the timing of its release than anything else. The Report itself is upfront about the lack of money for fee-free higher education for all and spends most of its 700-plus pages offering up alternative solutions.

Nothing is going to happen instantly, we have to know that. But surely by now we should have answers? Or at least fewer questions.

For all the fanfare surrounding the release of the report, it doesn't really say much. Nothing held within its pages is concrete (not even wet, just-poured concrete) and now we have to settle down and start waiting again? Nuh-uh, count me out. This Fees Commission Report comes too late and, for the amount of time it took to be released, does too little.

Which, again, leaves me with just more questions as to why it was released and where we go from here.

Did I miss something? Have an opinion on the Fees Commission report, on the ICL-system, anything? Drop it in the comments below!


Column by Conor Engelbrecht

The views expressed herein are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of Portal Publishing.

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