Registration at Universities and TVET Colleges: DHET briefing, with Minister in attendance

NCOP Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture

22 February 2017
Chairperson: Ms L Zwane (ANC, Kwazulu Natal)
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Meeting Summary

Towards the end of the year 2016, violent demonstrations rocked the higher education sector. These violent demonstrations were unprecedented and threatened to affect the 2016 academic year. Several issues arose as a result of these protests. Some students had to register late and others did not have access to funds in order to continue with their studies. The Minister of Higher Education and Training gave a brief background of issues which affected the 2016 academic year and praised the institutions of higher education for the resilience displayed and completing the 2016 year successfully, albeit late in some instances.

Private institutions of higher learning were the major beneficiary of the student unrest as they saw large number of enrolments in their institutions. The public school system was highly regarded in the African continent and currently enrolled 70 000 foreign nationals with 90 percent coming from the African continent; 26 000 of those were from Zimbabwe.

The biggest problem faced by TVET colleges was funding and as such expansion of the TVET college network was compromised. One of the other major challenges faced by TVET colleges was the delay in giving out certificates as a result of problems faced at the State Information Technology Agency (SITA). The Minister said it was important to keep the wealthy parents’ children in the country because the public system needed their resources and that invariably meant stabilising the sector was very important. 200 000 places were opened this year for studies in the 26 public universities. Scarce skills were taken up by 63 950 students and a total of 1.014 million students were in public universities.

All universities finalised the application processes for the year 2017 and classes were in full swing now. NSFAS made an advance payment totalling 15 percent of what was due to the universities in order to facilitate registration of students. This registration process also catered for households whose income was below R600 000. This group was identified as the missing income. A career development system was in place that introduced learners to scarce skills and also targeted the rural areas. This was happening alongside the initiative that the Minister was driving in order to develop careers. Students who were considered the missing middle income group would pay fees at the same value paid during the 2015 academic year. If any student had their applications for funding turned down, they may appeal that decision within the departments’ structures. It was very important that students made an application for funding in order to enhance transparency of the system.

TVET colleges played an important role in skills training and the Department prioritised the development of these colleges. There were a lot of late registrations because a large number of students waited to see whether they would get a place in the university before they applied to TVET colleges, and only when they failed to get placement in university did they go to the TVET. The Department was also trying to eradicate the unnecessary repetition of subjects studied at TVET colleges for grade 12 graduates. Only 54 percent of the TVET college bills were being subsidised against a target of 80 percent

The TVET colleges in the Eastern Cape, particularly the ones focusing on agriculture were doing very well. There was a dire need to change peoples’ perceptions of TVET colleges. Clarity on what Government was subsiding in terms of other expenses associated with studying was necessary. Some students were denied registration in 2016 as a result of the debt that remained outstanding from 2015 and yet government was only paying the debt for students that were incurred in 2016.

The Committee questioned what the challenges were of recouping debts that were advanced to students in the past academic years and whether there was any collaboration with SARS. Clarification on the status of arrested students was sought out. The concern for households that earned slightly above the R600 000 limit and yet had to pay for multiple students school fees was raised. The quality of education offered by private universities was considered as a major concern and the lack of numbers of first year drop outs was a big problem. The importance of career guidance was emphasized as this would assist in eradicating confusion. The Central Applications Clearing House (CACH) system was a welcome development in promoting access to education but may not be beneficial to students in the rural areas. TVET colleges in the Gauteng area were not performing very well, particularly the one in Randfontein. Members felt that the Department needed to address the problems presented and not come to the Committee with problems. The accommodation issue was going to be a very sticky issue for the Department. 

Meeting report

Opening Remarks
The Chairperson opened the meeting by acknowledging that problems plagued the higher education sector and expressed her concern on how the events have affected the Medium-Term Strategic Framework and the National Development Plan. She wanted to know how many students did not register at universities and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges because of lack of places, funds and application form issues. She also wanted to know whether applications were closed.

Remarks by the Minister
Dr Blade Nzimande, the Minister of Higher Education and Training, welcomed wise counsel from the Committee and gave a brief background of the events that unfolded at the end of 2016 which affected the higher education sector. He identified last years’ protests as the most intense and mentioned that they were characterised by destruction of property. He stated that the scale of destruction was unprecedented not experienced during the apartheid era. It was worth noting however that despite all the challenges, all universities completed the 2016 academic year even though some universities had to examine students in January 2017.  The late exams posed a few challenges for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and registration at the universities for the 2017 academic year.

Dr Nzimande identified another matter that was not sufficiently addressed and that was the number of students that were applying to private universities which increased as a result of the disturbances. He said that some of the private universities were enjoying this situation and asked to hold meetings with the Department. The Minister identified the public higher education system as the largest on the continent, and highly regarded globally. The public system had more than one million students, around 70 000 foreign students, of which ninety percent came from the African continent. Zimbabwean students ran up to 26 000 in the universities.

The Minister mentioned that the proliferation of private universities had led to the establishment of two types of private universities, the very good and expensive university and the poor quality substandard reasonably affordable university.

Dr Nzimande said the TVET colleges faced financial challenges which were the biggest problem. The number of these colleges more than doubled since 2010. The government was supposed to subsidise eighty percent of the budget but only fifty-four percent of the budget was subsidised and as a result, expansion was compromised. Besides these challenges, a new college in Thabazimbi, and two in Kwazulu Natal would be opened, one which would be in Nkandla and one in Bambanani.

Students threatened a shut down on the academic year but the Department was able to dissuade them from doing so. The Department acknowledged the students concerns and agreed that it was unacceptable that students would write exams and not get results on time and not get the certificate on time. To this end, he said he visited his own exam section and went to the State Information and Technology Agency (SITA) because of the challenge being faced with regards to the production of certificates. The Chairman of the SITA board and the Chief Executive Officer told the Minister during that visit that all outstanding certificates would be produced in June 2017. The Minister acknowledged that this may not be ideal but was a big improvement considering those were outstanding certificates from as far back as 2012.

The Chairperson expressed her concern on the proliferation of private higher education departments. She stated that these institutions were thriving on the destruction of public institutions. This put South African students at a disadvantage and supported the private institutions. She had an expectation that the certificates issued would be sorted out by February 2017 as this situation prevented students from getting employed.

Ms P Samka-Mququ (ANC Easter Cape) raised an issue in Xhosa which had to do with the situation at Walter Sisulu University.

The Minister said that it was important to keep children with wealthy parents because the public system needed their financial resources. Part of the purpose of going to SITA was to demand the certificates because this situation compromised the reputation of the colleges and undermined the work Government was doing in trying to encourage students to study at the TVET colleges. The Minister asked the Committee to hold the Department to account on this issue.

The Director General of the Department of Higher Education and Training Mr Gwebinkundla Qonde said he was at Walter Sisulu University the past Thursday to address the situation there. The biggest issue the university was grappling with was the unavailability of water which was affecting both the university and the college. The issue was going on for over three months and it was becoming too costly to rent toilet facilities. As a result, the institution was looking into drilling boreholes in order to address the problem.

Briefing by Department of Higher Education and Training
The presentation by the Director General commenced by identifying that there were 26 universities that provided approximately 200 000 places for new entrants into various fields of study for the year 2017. Scarce skills areas were filled by approximately 63 950 students. A total of 1.014 million students were enrolled in the public university system.

Private institutions recorded high requests from the public to enrol. A heavy reliance was placed on everyone across all political affiliations to eliminate the down trend of enrolment in public institutions and the upward trend in private universities. The disruption in the public university system would affect the lower and working class citizens only because the wealthy would simply look for other alternatives to education. Enrolment targets were set after consultation with universities. The DG mentioned that the enrolment figures presented in the slides were however not audited at the institution level.

All universities processed applications in January and have since completed the process. The requirement of a payment of upfront fees in order to facilitate registration was there to mitigate cash flow challenges that an institution may have had. NSFAS made an advance payment of approximately fifteen percent of what was allocated to each institution. This allocation facilitated the inclusion of all NSFAS beneficiaries in the registration process. Students whose household income was a maximum of R600 000 per year were considered the missing middle and were also beneficiaries of this initial payment and this enabled them to register without making an upfront payment.

The career development service introduced awareness of careers that were known as scarce skills in remote areas. This led to the registration for study in actuarial sciences and veterinary sciences in the far rural areas. The South African Broadcasting Corporation radio stations were engaged to advertise the career development system introduced by the Department in order to reach out to students. The Deputy Minister was also driving other initiatives for career development. These initiatives were building on a central application platform which was a platform prospective students could use to send one application and pay one application fee for admission to several universities. The Minister engaged various stakeholders in the various institutions with the main goal of seeking common ground in an attempt to stabilising the start of the 2017 academic year. As a result, all beneficiaries of the NSFAS would not experience a fee increase for 2017.

The Minister interjected in order to clarify that it was only those that qualified for NSFAS whose fees were paid for and the missing middle students would only be assisted with a payment for the increase in the fees from the year 2015. The effect of this was that the missing middle income group would pay fees at the same value paid during the 2015 academic year.

The Director General mentioned that there was an appeal structure set up in the NSFAS system. This meant that if a student had his application turned down, there was an internal procedure to have the initial decision reconsidered and the result was that NSFAS interacted directly with students. Students did not have to apply exclusively through the institution to which they would be attending. It also was important that the application process was followed in order to facilitate transparency. The Department would not fund students that did not make an application for funding. It was stated that student fees were not a significant aspect of expenses to be met by students during their studies as they only made up 20 percent of the expenses met. It was also worth noting that Government subsidised a lot of the other expenses incurred by the students.

The Director-General also pointed out that the property the institutions used belonged to the public and not to any political party. The political parties should emphasise this point as such knowledge would help with mitigating the losses suffered during protests.

When addressing the Committee on TVET colleges the Director General emphasised that skills training depended on these colleges. Said the DG, “If we fail these colleges we would miss out on skills training”. Universities were a high end philosophical sector and TVET colleges drove the economy. There was an outstanding salary bill of about R100m since the Department took over TVET colleges from provincial administration. This shortfall was a result of adjustments that were made by Government in order to make lecturer salaries in the colleges competitive.

Colleges started their studies in January however there were a lot of late registrations because a large number of students waited to see whether they would get a place in the university before they applied to TVET colleges and only when they failed to get placement in university did they go to TVET. The Department was interested in training to be biased towards scarce and critical skills for example electrical engineering and carpentry. 60% of learners were grade 12 graduates and they ended up repeating what they learnt in high school. The Department was trying to eliminate this situation by way of introduction of Senior Certificates in collaboration with UNISA and CPUT.

The Director-General reiterated the fact that the Department was only subsiding 54 per cent of the TVET bill as opposed to 80 per cent. He also speculated that this year the Department may be able to subsidise fifty seven per cent of the bill.

Ms L Dlamini (ANC, Mpumalanga) said that during the “taking parliament to the people” session in the Eastern Cape she met a number of TVET colleges there, and praised the good work being done. She did not remember the names of the colleges visited. The agriculture colleges particularly impressed her because of the very good commendable work being done. Specific mention of the managers responsible for technology as very impressive was made. They were very clean and orderly. The need to deal with people’s negative perceptions of TVET colleges was mentioned and the need to market TVET colleges properly was identified.  She was impressed with the work done in Neilspriut, because the colleges were doing very well. The revised targets and shortage of funds issue was particularly concerning because the skills taught in the colleges such as plumbing were scarce. The revision of targets downwards was a concern to her because enrolment in the institution should be upwards. She was interested to know how countries such as Zimbabwe, that had free education, managed to provide such education.

Another area of concern for Ms L Dlamini was value for money and since fees were a very small portion of the expense students sufferred and the Government was subsiding other things; clarity on what these other things were was important. The citizens needed transparency on this issue. Ms Dlamini could only imagine accommodation fees being subsidised. The issue of historical debt was addressed. It was noted that some students did not owe a portion of last years’ fees. This was because they were denied registration in 2016 as a result of the debt that remained outstanding from 2015. The Department was only paying the debt for 2016 academic year and this may have left the other students compromised.  She also wanted to know what the missing middle really was and what was really missing?

Ms T Mpambo-Sibhukwana (DA, Western Cape) stressed that the presentation was silent on retrieving funding that was advanced to past learners in the form of loans. She wanted to know what successes and challenges were experienced in recovering such monies. Have there been any collaborative efforts made with SARS in order to get these monies back. Another area of concern raised by her was the status of students that were arrested and injured during the protests. The value of damage to the infrastructure was sought as well. In addition to the value, the identity of the individual or institutions that were going to finance the restoration of the damage was sought. The management of and monitoring of wasteful expenditure had to be addressed. This was made in reference to student allowances that might be misused by the students. Introduction of vouchers for the books was a commendable initiative but wasteful cash expenditure needed to be addressed.

Ms T Mpambo-Sibhukwana also raised concerns about students whose parents earned more than R600 000 per annum who did not qualify to be funded but were doing exceptionally well in comparison to the students who were recipients of NSFAS who failed dismally. She asked that there be funding introduced for the student that did exceptionally well. She stated that she knew of a family that was led by a single mother, who had six children and the family income was slightly above the R600 000 level. She mentioned that the household income was at R610 000 and most of this lady’s children were in university and were in dire need of funding.

Ms P Samka-Mququ (ANC, Eastern Cape) spoke in Xhosa.

Mr M Khawula (IFP, Kwazulu Natal) shared the Minister concerns on the relationship between public and private institutions arose as a result of the skirmishes. He suggested that the Department monitor the quality of education being given by the private institutions. The quality, credibility and relevance of the modules taught at these institutions needed to be scrutinized because they might be ripping off students by giving out substandard education.

Mr M Khawula also expressed his disappointment in not getting the figures of first year drop outs. He stressed that this information was important in order to assess the transition from high school to university. He also mentioned that he was asking for these figures every year and never received them. Particular emphasis was made for the university first year drop out numbers. He also wanted to know what were the common trends from the universities were that had the most violent protests. Career exhibitions were identified as very important because some learners did not know what to do after grade 12. They got confused and a little traumatised when the found out the limitations of their academic qualifications. Clarity on how the Central Applications Clearing House (CACH) would affect the Central Applications Office (CAO) that was in operation in Kwazulu Natal was sought and whether the latter continued to operate. Did CACH work for both Universities and TVETs?

The grey area that existed between those who earned slightly above R600 000 but had many children in university and those that had one dependant and earned slightly below R600 000 ought to be addressed. Furthermore, tensions may arise because people thought it was the fees that would be paid for and not the increase for the missing gap. He also wondered whether the information on slide 23 of the presentation did not temper with the autonomy of the university and who was this addressed to in any event. He wanted heavy emphasis to be placed on the point that university property belonged to South Africa and not political parties. However, it was not political parties that were protesting it was the students. The issue of grade 12 learners that made university their first choice and then only went to TVET colleges after failing to secure a place at university needed to be addressed.

Ms G Ngwenya (EFF, Gauteng) stressed that the backlog on certificates at TVET was unacceptable and requested that the Committee get a quarterly report on the progress made in clearing the backlog. She also asked whether African kids knew much about the scarce skills and the different career choices available. She also reiterated the confusion that learners had when it came to making career choices. She also asked to have properly trained teachers in grade nine to 12 to tend to career guidance.

Ms Ngwenya also wanted to know how many children were exposed to artisanship since 2015 and how women were affected. Keta may not be a good enough platform for awareness and an inclusion of printed media and TV was necessary. She expressed her doubt on the effectiveness of CACH in the rural areas because the people living there did not have cell phones for SMS and some kids did not have access to landline telephones in order to access the toll free line. She also wanted to know what percentage the 40 percent of students that benefited came from the rural areas. The centralised application was commended for eliminating application fees. The missing middle explanation was good, though she sought clarification on how the children in the missing middle were identified and whether this criterion could be reviewed.
Ms Ngwenya wanted to know more on the NSFAS appeal process and whether the students knew how to use this process. She also stressed that TVET was missing the vocational aspect of training. This she was able to conclude because she had a relationship with a college in Randfontein, Culemburg, where most of the students were not exposed to the vocational experience. She acknowledged that experience played a very huge role in securing a job. She also stressed that the classrooms were insufficient and the lecturers there were insufficiently qualified. Of particular concern was that some students at the University of Pretoria were required to write a letter motivating whether they should be readmitted, she wanted to know what the outcome of such process was. She concluded by making mention of the fact that she was not impressed by the political comments made in jest by the Minister.

Mr C Hattingh (DA, North West) identified the situation at the universities and TVET colleges as a national crisis. He suggested that the economy needed a different approach. The fact that people believed that a job and future was linked to a university when there were more job opportunities coming out of TVETs and not universities needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The Department presented problems and no solutions which were quite disheartening and he hoped that the solution would be found in todays’ budget.

Mr Hattingh prompted an accommodation crises arising in the near future and the fact that political parties tried to use students to gain favour and support should be stopped. He identified a shortage of veterinary science students and that the country lost the best graduates to the lucrative overseas workforce once graduation happened had to be considered.

The Chairperson asked the Minister to respond to the questions where he had answers available and suggested that the rest of the questions be responded to in writing. She also assured the Minister that the Committee would follow up. She also expressed her displeasure with the number of artisans being at 3 000 and identified this as low in respect to the need to transform the economy. She expressed her pleasure at the fact that NSFAS had direct interaction with students and suggested that some forms be placed at constituency offices for students to access. She also asked that the qualifications of lectures at TVET colleges be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The Minister opened his responses by identifying the issue on the arrested students as a matter that was asked in several forums. He stressed the need to allow the criminal process to unfold. Even though it was not a good thing to watch students get arrested, at the same time Government could not turn a blind eye to crime. Some students were charged with serious offices. The Ministerial Committee led by Mr J Radebe, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, appointed by the President, looked into this issue and the focus should be on dissuading students from getting violent. It was noted that the public protest was becoming violent and was an indication of broader issues at play.

The Minister acknowledged that getting parents to participate in university matters was a big problem, unlike in schools. Universities did not draw students from the neighbourhood only, so participation was a problem. He pleaded with Members to use their constituencies to motivate parents to participate. The Minister asked that the jokes with Mr Khawula should not be taken seriously as it was plutonic. The number of artisans was a NDP target and a performance agreement existed between the Minister and the President. The idea was that by 2030 there should be 30 000 artisans produced each year. Now the Department was producing 25 000 but the point was whether this was a good target because 30 000 may not be enough. 30 000 artisans a year was a little bit of guess work and may not address the needs adequately.

The Director General weighed in by addressing the issue on career guidance. He mentioned that there was a booklet that was developed that went to all schools in the country. Roughly 1 000 000 booklets were distributed, the radio and through SABC TV, although costly, was being used to reach out to learners. He stressed that the Department was “throwing in a lot of money in NSFAS” and institutions were running programmes in a lot of provinces to disseminate information. Career guidance teachers were being trained and the Department targeted 6 000 teachers and have trained 3 000 so far. The Department was strategically trying to prioritize issues that needed to be addressed and the resources available at the moment did not accommodate for a perfect system as there was a need to juggle resources in order to prioritize sufficiently.

The Director General identified that Stellenbosch University conducted a study on NSFAS students and discovered that they performed 70% better as funding was only available as long as students were able to progress. He also stressed that there was a concerted effort to bring institutions that were operating illegally to be deregistered. The autonomy of universities would not be compromised in endeavours to facilitate a smooth 2017 academic year. Colleges were partnering with companies and the Minister was driving this. There were agreements with companies and bodies of companies. In the year 2013/12, a skill accord was signed between the Minister and various captains of industry in order to enhance the vocational training aspect in TVET colleges

The Minister concluded by mentioning that slide 17 on page 9 should read September and not April.

The meeting was adjourned..

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