On December 16th, President Jacob Zuma made the long-awaited announcement that free Higher Education for all poor and working class South African students is to be introduced in 2018 and fully phased in over the next five years. This new government grant system will replace the previous loan system run by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and expand its reach to all students coming from households with a combined annual income of up to R350‚000. This is a significant overture to students coming from the “missing middle” who until now have found themselves ineligible for government assistance yet struggling to finance their studies, as articulated through the Fees Must Fall movement.
The announcement comes after the release of the Heher Commission of Inquiry which, conversely, ruled that free higher education was not feasible and that fees should instead be funded through a cost-sharing model of government guaranteed “Income-Contingency Loans” sourced from commercial banks.
The Canon Collins Trust has long supported the campaign for universal affordable higher education; no student should be denied access to university due to a lack of financial means. As an organisation committed to an open and just society, and the elimination of systemic inequalities, we stand against exclusion on the basis of affordability.
The introduction of free higher education for South African students who would otherwise be excluded from university, or face huge financial struggles in their efforts to obtain a degree, is a desirable outcome and we welcome the Government’s commitment to making this dream a reality.
However, this progressive initiative can only succeed if a financially sustainable, long-term plan has been devised. The Government must guarantee that funding for these grants will not be to the detriment of other vital social services such as housing, health and basic education.
We look forward to the Finance Minister’s February Budget Speech where he has promised to provide full details of how the initiative can be funded in a fiscally sustainable manner.