Picture: 123RF / LIGHTWISE
Picture: 123RF / LIGHTWISE

It should come as no surprise that the Heher Commission has finally concluded that free higher education for all South Africans is "unaffordable". Two years ago, President Jacob Zuma established the commission to answer the question: is free higher education feasible?

Actually, it was the wrong question, because the answer was always going to be "no". It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at SA’s public finances to see that.

Anyway, with only 5% of poor children qualifying for university, compared with 40%-50% from the affluent middle-classes, free education would always be a regressive policy, giving a free ride to those who could actually afford to pay something towards education.

Rather, what Heher’s commission should have been asked to establish was whether tertiary education could be made more accessible through innovative financing mechanisms, because then the answer would have been a resounding "yes".

So, having sat on Heher’s report for months — thereby plunging the state into yet another public relations nightmare that threatens to bubble over into further violent protests — Zuma still can’t satisfy students’ demands.

It is vital that the state gets ahead of the situation by explaining that Heher has proposed a more sustainable solution than free university education, but which will require a greater contribution from everyone except the poor.

In this model, university students contribute to their fees on a sliding scale depending on household income, but technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is free, as most college students come from poorer backgrounds.

The commission also recommends that TVET students get a stipend and R50bn be diverted from the surplus in the Unemployment Insurance Fund to rehabilitate college infrastructure.

The clear attempt by the commission to channel students towards technical and vocational careers makes sense, given the needs of the economy and SA’s sky-high unemployment. But finding the money, even for this, will be tricky.

Reportedly, one of Heher’s recommendations is that government subsidies to universities should be raised to 1% of GDP. That would push up the sector’s 2018/2019 allocation from R39bn (0.8% of GDP) to about R49bn.

In addition, the state currently spends R10bn/year funding 70% of TVET students. Covering the full cost of study for all of them would cost a further R23.5bn over the next three years.

To ensure the state’s student financial aid scheme remains sustainable, Heher reportedly recommends that loan beneficiaries who graduate and find jobs be subject to automatic salary deductions by the SA Revenue Service once they earn more than a certain amount.

This was the sensible recommendation made by a task team set up under former FirstRand CEO Sizwe Nxasana at the height of the fees protests.

It also proposed ways to tap into private institutions to fund the R25bn gap between what government can afford and what is needed to cover the full cost of tertiary study for poor and "missing-middle" students.

The solution, it said, was to overhaul the dysfunctional National Student Financial Aid Scheme and replace it with a private-public partnership scheme to win the trust of funders. A pilot project, Ikusasa, has been operating at seven universities over the past year, and feedback has been "very positive", says Nxasana.

There are enough similarities in the funding approach from the Heher report to suggest this new model is being embraced. It’s a better model for SA than free education, after all.

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