Department of Higher Education and Training director-general Gwebinkundla Qonde. Picture: SOWETAN
Department of Higher Education and Training director-general Gwebinkundla Qonde. Picture: SOWETAN

Fees need to be hiked regardless of whether education is free or not, to take account of the economic realities facing higher education institutions, Department of Higher Education director-general Gwebinkundla Qonde says.

"It has nothing to do with who pays the fees. It’s an economic imperative," Qonde told Parliament on Wednesday.

While most universities have yet to announce fee increases for 2018 because they are awaiting the release of the Heher commission’s report on funding higher education, Universities South Africa recently told Higher Education Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize that universities needed an 8% increase in income.

University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Max Price told the Sunday Times last week that tuition fees made up about half of the institution’s income and staff salaries would have to be cut if there was no fee increase.

Qonde ducked MPs’ questions on the Heher commissions’ report, saying he was not at liberty to discuss its contents. The report, saying fee-free higher education for everyone was not feasible, was leaked to the media two weeks ago, but has yet to be released by President Jacob Zuma.

"It is not our competence to talk about this. It is a matter that the president has assured us is receiving his utmost attention and quite soon pronouncements are going to be made," Qonde told Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education.

"The approach has always been ... to work towards finding a more lasting solution, which requires a bit of consideration, as well as processing of the issues. We are not just talking about fees, but the funding of the entire system. That’s all we can say at this stage. It’s not our report. It’s the president’s report," he said.

Qonde subsequently told Business Day that he had no knowledge of a plan Zuma reportedly had to announce free education across the board.

On Tuesday, TimesLive reported that Zuma had been presented with a plan crafted by his future son-in-law, Morris Masutha. The plan proposes cutting back departmental budgets across the government to free up R40bn for the 2018 academic year.

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