Wits University. Picture: WITS
Wits University. Picture: WITS

President Cyril Ramaphosa has committed to phasing in fully subsidised free higher education and training for poor and working-class students starting in 2018.

Ramaphosa said in his state of the nation address (Sona) on Friday evening that the higher education and training minister would lead the implementation of the policy, while the finance minister would clarify all aspects of the financing of the scheme during his budget speech on Wednesday.

“In addition to promoting social justice, an investment of this scale in higher education is expected to contribute to greater economic growth, reduce poverty, reduce inequality, enhance earnings and increase the competitiveness of our economy.

“Government will continue to invest in expanding access to quality basic education and improving the outcomes of our public schools,” Ramaphosa said.

In a surprise move in December, former president Jacob Zuma effectively overruled the Heher Commission report into the feasibility of free higher education when he announced that the government would subsidise free higher education for poor and working-lass students. He said at the time the definition of poor and working-class students would refer to those "currently enrolled in TVET colleges or university students from South African households with a combined annual income of up to R350,000" by the 2018 academic year.

The Heher Commission report found that the state could not afford to provide free education for all students. It recommended that students in the technical, vocational education and training sector should get free education, with grants that covered their full study costs. For university students, it suggested a cost-sharing model of government-guaranteed income-contingent loans sourced from banks.

In 2017, the Davis tax committee also said free university education for all was neither affordable nor desirable, but the government could raise the money to help academically capable students who needed financial assistance. It has proposed a hybrid system of grants for poor people, government-backed loans for the "missing middle" and fees for the wealthy, which it said would require an extra R15bn a year.

Ramaphosa said the broader education system had improved.

“We are seeing improvements in the outcomes of our basic education system. The matric pass rate increased from 60.6% in 2009 to 75.1% last year. There are currently almost 1-million students enrolled in higher education, up from just over 500,000 in 1994. As we enter a new era, we are determined to build on these achievements, confront the challenges we face and accelerate progress in building a more prosperous and equitable society,” the President said.