Picture: TISO BLACKSTAR
Picture: TISO BLACKSTAR

It’s not what one would call policy clarity. First, the Heher commission on the funding of higher education took more than 18 months to complete its work. Then President Jacob Zuma sat on the commission’s report for almost two months, making it almost inevitable someone would leak it — in this case to City Press, which published a sample of the commission’s recommendations on Sunday.

The Presidency was working hard on reading the report, we were told in a media statement last week. It would consult with ministers and ensure the government was ready to implement the president’s decision as soon as he released the report. The Presidency promised to finalise matters this week. Whether and when it will have the courage to come out with a plan of action remains to be seen.

That’s especially so given that it is unlikely the plan will go down well with "fees must fall" students. The commission was never going to recommend free education for all, as the "fallists" demand. But the Presidency has now left it long enough that the medium-term budget policy statement has been tabled in Parliament. And the one stark message to emerge from last week’s statement is, quite simply, that there is no money.

THE ONE STARK MESSAGE TO EMERGE IS, QUITE SIMPLY, THAT THERE IS NO MONEY.

There is no money even for the more measured recommendations the commission has reportedly made on expanding and improving funding for poorer and missing-middle students — unless it can be taken away from other projects and departments. As it is, government spending on post-school education is projected to rise 8.2% a year, on average, over the medium term, making it the second-fastest rising item on the budget after the cost of the public debt.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has been allocated an additional R40bn between 2017-18 and 2019-20 — about the same amount as would be needed in 2018 to get the government’s fiscal consolidation plan back on track.

Whether the state should be spending even more on universities and technical vocational education and training colleges at the expense of the early childhood education that could make a difference to students’ success rates is a question asked by several of those who made submissions to the Heher commission.

The commission’s leaked report seems to have made some eminently sensible suggestions to tackle the funding conundrum, particularly its proposal for an income contingent loan scheme, which would replace or transform the NSFAS arrangement.

Most NSFAS money goes to fund poor students at technical and vocational colleges. While those who pass are not required to pay back their loans, those who fail are. The result is that the poorest and weakest students end up with the debt burden, rather than the successful ones, who can afford to repay. NSFAS’s ailing finances in part reflect that.

It appears the proposed income contingent loan scheme would exempt those who fail and those who end up in very low-paying jobs, but would ensure the successful ones pay back in line with their incomes.

However, some of the report’s recommendations sound impossible to implement and some of its proposals on where the money is to be found ring alarm bells. The idea that the government might raid unclaimed pension benefits is a dangerous one, and raiding the Unemployment Insurance Fund is hardly better. But the biggest problem with higher-education funding is, arguably, how much of it goes to waste on students who struggle to finish in the allotted time — if they finish at all.

That suggests there can be no sustainable solution to the funding problem unless the government does something about the basic education system, which produces so many students whose schooling is woefully inadequate to equip them to obtain their university degrees or college diplomas. Putting more money into higher education on its own won’t fix what’s broken.

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