South African Students Congress

Institutional and Government Funding in Higher Education

25 June 2007

SASCO Perspective at the UNISA Inaugural National Student Parliament


Madam Speaker, the President of the SRC, all protocol observed, receive profound revolutionary greetings from SASCO!

The discussion on funding of higher education will always be a challenging and complex discussion to deal with. We say so because of two reasons. First, the hostile nature on the one hand, of the environment within which education policy unfolds in SA and the hostile nature of higher education policy itself and in particular, funding of public higher education.

Second, the discussion is challenging and complex because, lack of financial resources remains the foremost exclusionary impediment for the majority of the previously disadvantaged students who desperately and legitimately so, want access to education (HE) in SA.


But Madam Speaker, before going deep into the discussions we need to lay the context of this challenge:

Access & Success and the Policy Framework for Funding

The policy framework for the funding of HE is found in the 2003 Funding of Public Higher Education, a framework which builds on White Paper Three and the NPHE wherein funding is defined as one of the four levers for steering the direction and transformation of HE in the country. The other three mechanisms/levers are: planning, regulation and quality assurance. And in essence, funding is divided into two main categories, that is, block grants and earmarked grants.

The aim of this funding policy, we are told by government, is to have a “transformed higher education system, which is affordable, sustainable and contributes to the skills, human resource and knowledge needs of South Africa”. But is this the case today?

Our view is that the current funding framework perpetuates the disparities between historically white and black institutions. Those who excel in research & teaching due to many years of apartheid skewed and distorted funding continue to do so from a solid past and those who were not fortunate to receive favour from the apartheid administration continue to perish as centres of academic learning, teaching and research and these are institutions which continue by and large to accommodate the poorest of the poor and are expected to continue this role. In this sense access, redress and equity is undermined.

The 2007 Budget

The Minister budget speech last month highlight the following achievements and future plans:

The budget speech goes on to announce a new initiative: the three-year pilot Fundisa Fund. (Below we summarise the essence of this new initiative).

Although in financial terms; education budget allocation shows an increasing pattern for more than six years, the reality is that education funding has decreased in real terms in the past 15 years. The number of students enrolled in HE has increased phenomenally over the years but the failure rate has sought to undermine this much needed increase. At present various studies point to the fact that SA has a high failure and drop-out rate; some put the figure at 50% and majority of these are black students. Institutions cited the burden of increasing numbers with insufficient funding as amongst other reasons for the drop-out rate.

In this regard, the questions of quality, institutional culture and student services is crucial to changing the situation around.

Interesting enough, the Student Capping Policy which has its roots on Size & Shape, White Paper 3, NPHE and the funding framework is an indirect acknowledgement of the real decrease in funding by our government. The simple question we ask is: if funding is increasing why do we have to reduce numbers? Comrades must remember that student capping is real and its happening. (e.g. Limpopo University).

What is Fundisa Fund?

It is a public-private partnership aimed at encouraging savings by parents for post-matric education. That’s the long and short of it.

But like any other initiative or policy, we need to be critical and vigilant. We need to ask what is this all about?

NSFAS: Progress or what?

There is a dent that NSFAS as part of earmarked funding makes to the challenge of financial exclusion how there are limitations. The scheme has grown from R41m in 1992 to R956m in 2004 and in 1992 it catered for 14160 students whereas in 2004 this number had increased to 115000 and now the figure is just above 120 000.

The one measure that is worrying to SASCO is the comparison that one needs to make between NSFAS recipient, a student from a middle class family and a rich white student. At the point of graduation the latter two usually go on with their post-graduate studies or get work and start investing in things like property etc whereas; the NSFAS recipient faces a huge debt to pay and as a result his/her earnings cannot immediately secure financial comfort and social security. In this way, the disparities in income, poverty and social security continue between the previously advantaged and disadvantaged groups moving forward. In this sense therefore NSFAS is not sustainable in the long-term!

As recent as this year, the DoE announced plans to temper with one of the key earmarked funding the funding of foundation year programme (withdrawn in 2007). Apparently because it is Reasons costly financially, it is better to have extended programmes e.g. (four year degree programmes) than these bridging courses. But institutions like UP is opposed the move. Ministry is apparently reconsidering. The disadvantage is that students will lose their power to choose, they will now be channelled.

Fee increments and the student debt

Annual fee increments undermine access and intervention efforts. Some institutions increase fees way beyond inflation rate whereas even their expenditure priorities and patterns leave much to be desired. Some institutions don’t even bother to consult student leadership and it is only on rare occasion that fees will be determined on a consensus basis; the tradition is usually unilateral increase!

Student debt remains a major problem and is on the rise. The lack of jobs or unemployability of some of our graduates further compounds this problem. Some students can’t find employment because, they owe and the institutions are withholding the results or certificates.

In NSFAS alone the student debt stands at about R6 billion with 2.6 billion payable and this only speaks to NSFAS statistics.

It is important to note that fee increments and the student debt reinforce each other.

UNISA specific Scenario

Funding and financial aid is slightly different in UNISA:

Clearly UNISA is more accessible more than the many contact universities in the country and the apparent changes in the student profile into a younger generation indicate the seriousness and even urgency of the situation on the ground in terms of access to education in the country.

The wayforward is Free Education for the Poor

The problem with the charging of fees lies with what I call, the invisible hand. This invisible hand excludes students before they even enter the system. When students think about the exorbitant fees they just get demoralised to even apply.

Already there is progress and progressive signs emerging which we can build on: The SASA of 1996 as amended provides for school fee exemption, now we have no-fee schools, now the ANC considers a free and compulsory primary education for all, we have NSFAS as an intervention, we now have some financial aid in the FET, surely we can be more creative!

But what will constitute the basic tenets of this free education?

But where will the money to fund free education come from?

How many of us are willing to be academics, good ones for that matter, contribute in the quality of teaching and improve the research outputs in our historically black universities? This is a strategic question that the students of SA must ask begin to take seriously!


Opposing forces of the free education campaign have only said; “SA cannot afford it”. And we are saying: The cost of not educating the youth of South Africa is far more expensive in the long run than it is to progressively introduce free education, the failure to undermine the call for free education has a serious potential to undermine the quest of social cohesion as this will inevitable undermine the entire social fibre that should underpin our society as we seek to create the social just society that subscribes to non-racialism, non-sexism, equity and democracy for all.

If the financially needy in the student populace amount to 120 000 (less than a fifth of the entire student population), these we assume, are what we may call poor students from working class backgrounds, then we must ask the question how much will it cost the nation to give free education to this number of students?

By the way, access to education must no longer emphasise race but class. Indeed we must ask the question, how many of the black students in HE are from rural, poor and working class background.

Atleast even if free education is “not possible” but; let us not accept an argument that says, we must not even debate the concept. Atleast even the liberals who do not agree with us, they still owe us the necessary respect for flow of ideas, debate and dialogue!

And the Congress of SAUS taking place in Bloemfontein this week is a crucial platform to intensify the struggle for free education. (ANC Policy Conference).

So, in the overall we disagree with the Funding Policy’s assertion that it aims for a “transformed higher education system, which is affordable, sustainable and contributes to the skills, human resource and knowledge needs of South Africa”.

We remain firm in our view that education is a right, not a privilege!