NMMU highlights need for university funding review at Fees Commission

SEPTEMBER 2, 2016

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), which witnessed SASCO-led #FeesMustFall disruptions recently, made its submission to the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training (the Fees Commission), highlighting a need for a national university funding review, adequate financial support for the so-called “missing middle” and improved management of student loans to help the national financial aid scheme meet the funding needs of poorer, academically deserving students.

Making the university’s submission to the commission in East London, where Eastern Cape universities made presentations on Thursday and Friday, NMMU Acting Vice-Chancellor Dr Sibongile Muthwa outlined the institution’s recommendations in the national attempt towards a viable university funding solution.

Last year’s #FeesMustFall movement turned South Africa’s higher education sector on its head, highlighting a need to address – and ultimately break down – all barriers to access to higher education for academically deserving students.

NMMU is of the view that the role of higher education as a key contributor to societal transformation, improved social justice and economic development is highly critical, with a need to address the myriad of challenges that were at the centre of the #FeesMustFall movement.

The South African higher education sector’s funding challenges have been a long time coming, as seen from the decline in government funding – seeing a nine percentage point drop between 2000 and 2013 – despite a marked increase in the number of students entering the system.

Dr Muthwa said more than 20 years into democracy, the critical developmental role of higher education in South African society is more important than ever before.

“The 2015 #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements brought home to all the realisation that our national project of creating a non-racial, unified, non-sexist, prosperous and democratic South Africa had not achieved its avowed goals,” she said.

“Stalled social and economic transformation, exacerbated by virtually stagnant economic growth in the country, has emphasised the need to address pressing social and economic challenges in a sustainable manner.

“Whilst South Africa has introduced a comprehensive social security safety net for the poor and the vulnerable, this system is simply assisting people trapped in poverty to survive in desperate circumstances. It is not lifting them out of poverty. Nor is it sustainable in the long-term.”

As part of NMMU’s recommendations, Dr Muthwa said the university supports the Ministerial Committee on the Review of the Funding of Universities that free higher education in the current context is neither equitable nor sustainable given government’s other social priorities and the sluggish economic growth.

NMMU made the following recommendations to the commission:

a)      Financial support to students who do not qualify for NSFAS funding, but are not wealthy enough to pay for their own studies – the “missing middle” through inclusion in bursary or loan schemes. The sector needs to clearly define what constitutes the “missing middle”.

b)      The National Students’ Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) needs to improve its ability to recover loans previously granted to students when they become economically active to ensure that the funds grow enough to be able to adequately fund academically deserving, financially needy students.

c)       Government funding to universities is not enough to meet the needs of the public university system and is below sustainable levels. The subsidy base, therefore, needs to be substantially increased.

d)      Universities need to improve efficiency and improve student success and completion rates. This initially entails extra costs as appropriate support packages are put in place to ensure “access with success” and improved cost-efficiencies in Universities’ operations.

e)      Student tuition fees should remain a crucial source of income for universities, with reasonable annual increases determined nationally in consultation with all role players. NMMU supports fee-free higher education for the poor and the university reaffirms its commitment to widening access to higher education.

In closing, Dr Muthwa emphasised that higher education should not be viewed simply as a government expenditure line function item, but as an investment in the long-term sustainable economic and social development of our country; nor should its transformational role be underestimated.

“The policy environment is already in place for many of the difficult choices to be made. What remains now is to give effect, through the appropriate fiscal prioritisation choices, so that the country is placed on a sustainable and equitable developmental trajectory,” she said.

“As NMMU we responded with agility to the challenges of access and funding and have pioneered a number of initiatives around the missing middle, support for ‘access with success’ that might be useful pointers to how the issues can be addressed.

“Lastly, and very importantly, the current situation in terms of university funding, if left unaddressed, threatens the sustainability of our universities.”

Meanwhile, the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, told Parliament that the Council of Higher Education (CHE) had indicated that if the 0% fee increases continued, about 19 universities will become dysfunctional in 2018, and that if increases were to be based on CPI, about 10 universities will be rendered dysfunctional.

Nzimande is expected to announce soon by how much the fees for the 2017 academic year will be increased. 

The Fees Commission was established in January 2016 to inquire into, report on and make recommendations on the feasibility of a fee free higher education and training in South Africa.

It is expected to submit a preliminary report to the President in November 2016 and a full report in June 2017.