Higher Education protests: stakeholder engagement; with Ministry

Higher Education, Science and Technology

17 March 2021
Chairperson: Mr P Mapulane (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Video:Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology, 17 March 2021

2018/19 Research and Development Survey Results

The Committee convened virtually to receive briefings from the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Wits University and its Students’ Representative Council (SRC), Universities South Africa (Usaf) and the South African Union of Students (SAUS). All of the stakeholders referred mainly to the same issues, which involved the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding; the clearing of historical debt; allowing students with historical debt to register; cancelling financial and academic exclusions; the Wits University protests; the 2021 academic year; and a solid plan for the funding of the “missing middle” students.

The Minister made it clear that the fundamental problem was the lack of funding to address the shortfall. He drew attention to the previously classified “missing middle” students who were now qualifying for NSFAS funding due to the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant there was a huge number of students who now qualified for NSFAS funding, which did not correlate with the budget cuts of the Department. The plan to address the shortfall would require a reprioritisation of funds from the Department amounting to R3.09 billion, and a further R3.3 billion from the National Skills Fund, which would impact on its programmes. This would be taking money from unemployed youths to fund university students, which was not feasible. It would hinder the process of skills development and training aimed at benefiting the millions of unemployed youth in the country. This reprioritisation of funds was intended to address the NSFAS shortfall.

In anticipation for a fully-fledged engagement, Members asked questions about the impact the student debt would have on the overall budget of Wits University; the proportion of student debt in relation to Wits University’s overall debt; the impact on the university if it allowed all of the 6 600 students who were not able to pay the 50% portion of the debt for them to register; the possibility of allowing all the students to register; and the reasons why students were not being allowed to register for now until a solution was found.  

Wits University informed the Committee that it administered about R1 billion in student financial aid, scholarships and bursaries annually. About 27 000 of Wits’ 37 500 students received some form of financial aid, scholarship or bursary support. Historically, about 12 200 were NSFAS-funded, 14 000 were donor-funded, and 4 500 were funded via the Council budget. Financial assistance was provided through the Wits Hardship Fund and Covid-19 Fund. As for the “missing middle” students, Wits had a large cohort of missing middle students who did not qualify for NSFAS funding.

The meeting took a turn when the Deputy Minister indicated that he would request to be excused from the meeting as he was chairing a task team meeting that would soon take place. Members were not happy with this, because the Ministery had also requested to leave the meeting early to attend another meeting. This meant that the political leadership would not be present, and Members felt that the issues that were being discussed at this level required the involvement of the political leadership. They expressed their disappointment at the absence of the political leadership, given the student protests currently happening in the country. The Committee resolved to terminate the meeting and reconvene on Tuesday next week.

Meeting report

Opening remarks

The Chairperson welcomed everyone, and indicated that Members appreciated the written responses from the Minister. Today, the Committee was scheduled to receive the briefings from Wits University and its student leadership. The Committee had to improvise, because the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) was supposed to brief the Committee on research, and the programme had been adjusted significantly given the national issues that involved Wits University. Some of these issues were beyond being dealt with at the institutional level, but on a national level.

The Committee would like to request the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) presentation to be brief in order to have enough time to engage with the student challenges at Wits University, and engage with other stakeholders.

Minister’s overview of student funding challenges

Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, requested to be released just before 10 am, because he would be attending another important meeting that would be discussing further the matters about funding.

Sometimes when emotions were high, the facts get buried or twisted in the public space. He reminded everyone about section 29 of the Constitution regarding access to education in the Republic. In the 2014/15 financial year, the Department had spent about R5 billion through the National Student Financial aid Scheme (NSFAS) to implement that clause in the institution. Now, however, it had increased more than sixfold – the 2021/22 figure was likely to reach R42 billion, which was extremely high. In two years, there had been a R14 billion growth, just on universities.

Members also needed to remember that this was now a bursary that would no longer be paid back – it was free.

The Department had a shortfall for NSFAS for 2021. Because of the continuing impact of budget cuts on all departments, Covid-19 had resulted in an extended academic year, with retrenchments and business closures affecting the number of students who now qualified for NSFAS. The Department was never compensated for the extended academic year for continuing to pay allowances.

Half of the university students were on NSFAS, and its shortfall at the beginning of the year was just over R5 billion.

The challenge of government was that if one combined the R5.6 billion shortfall of universities and the R719 million shortfall of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges, the total amounted to over R6 billion. This shortfall had been dealt with through the reprioritisation of funds by the Department.

The implication of taking money from the National Skills Fund (NSF) meant that the Department was taking money from the unemployed youth of South Africa to fund university students. It was taking money from Peter to pay Paul. There were about 3.5 million young people who were not in employment or in tertiary education, and this was the youth that the NSF was targeting so that they could have access to training and subsequent employment.

The Department had proposed a R3.09 billion reduction from its voted funds, which was broken down as follows: R2.49 billion from universities; R500 million from TVET infrastructure; and R100 million from goods & services. The NSF would identify R3.3 billion, but would enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with NSFAS. The implication of this was that other key programmes intended to support the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan would have to be halted.
There were over 700 000 applications, which had increased by 185 000 from 2020 trends. Discussions on this matter had started within government in November last year when the figures started showing what would likely happen. 76% of the applicants were South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) beneficiaries, which showed  that the grant was working. A great improvement for 2021 was that students who were rejected had been able to appeal immediately. There were 11 329 appeals received from rejected new applicants. 2 964 were rejected; 4 827 were provisionally approved; 1 711 were being evaluated; 1 706 were awaiting supporting documentation; and 121 had been withdrawn. Continuing student appeals for information would be communicated today to institutions, and would be open until 30 April.

Government policy, guided by section 29(1) of the Constitution, catered for free higher education for the children of the working class and the poor, within the prescribed criteria. As far as that policy was concerned, the targets had been met and the NSFAS students would be funded. Government policies generally had been targeting the poor and the working class. Even in basic education, there were no school fees for the poor, and even in former Model-C schools, those parents were not expected to pay. Housing, access to basic services and others, were all targeting the poor. At no stage was government planning to pay for the wealthy and those who could afford university fees.

The problem was not NSFAS and government policy, but student debt and the amounts owed, and the need and demand for students who owed to be allowed to register. The government was sympathetic to that, and the Department agreed with institutions to allow all NSFAS students to register.

The biggest issue right now was “the missing middle.” It was important not to imply that government was not adhering to its policy. From the meeting with vice-chancellors (VCs), the main agenda item was dealing with the missing middle. Even so, NSFAS had made exceptions in its policy.

Student debt was a huge problem. In the US it was estimated to be $1 trillion, and in South Africa it was R13 billion. The VCs had agreed that the missing middle students would be considered for funding on a case by case basis.

Right now, government was trying to establish the exact number of students that fell within the missing middle bracket to understand the scale and nature of the problem. The dilemma was that universities had agreed to the terms, but the students were demanding that this be done for everybody, which could not be done by all universities because they were not the same.

Briefing by Universities South Africa (Usaf)
 

Prof Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Usaf, said that the impact of Covid-19 in the higher education sector had:

  • Exacerbated the existing inequalities between our universities;
  • Shown how a glib shift to online learning could have serious consequences in a society as unequal as South Africa’s;
  • Highlighted the need for collaborative approaches and for the formation of new partnerships to address the systemic challenges;
  • Shifted the agenda on the need for new higher education and post-school education and training (PSET) national shared services platforms, to effectively reduce these inequalities;
  • Demonstrated the need for policy stability and policy consonance;
  • Produced a massive impact on the economy and hence on the funding of higher education and science.

In terms of registration, the registration of FTEN students had progressed. The NSFAS shortfall had resulted in the registration of first time entering students (FTENs) being dealt with differently at universities. The registration period had been extended by two weeks. The places offered to NSFAS students would be held until the NSFAS list process was completed and registration of senior students had progressed. The current student funding crisis had impacted this.

Briefing by Wits University
 

Prof Isaac Shongwe, Chairperson: Wits University Council, said that Wits University had done a lot to assist the students to register, but it was not enough. It would take a collective effort to resolve these challenges. They had to work together and this should not be a problem that divided them, but that united them. There should not be any student who qualified to go to university but had no access or opportunity to do so.

Wits University had set up a centenary campaign, as it was turning 100 next year, with which it hoped to raise about R3 billion. Council had committed itself to ensure that Wits continued to play the role that it played in society.

Mr Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice Chancellor: Wits University, delivered a presentation that covered matters such as applications, enrolments and registrations; a snapshot of Wits’ income; Wits’ challenges in the national context; the disbursement of NSFAS funds and allowances; the students’ latest demands and Wits’ concessions; engagement with the students’ representative council (SRC); teaching and learning during 2020; and readiness for the 2021 academic year. 

He told the Committee that 97% of Wits students were registered for the 2021 academic year.

In terms of financial assistance, Wits administered about R1 billion in student financial aid, scholarships and bursaries annually. About 27 000 of Wits’ 37 500 students received some form of financial aid, scholarships or bursary support. Historically, about 12 200 were NSFAS-funded, 14 000 were donor-funded, and 4 500 were funded via the Council budget.

1 351 requests for assistance were received by the University for financial assistance through the Wits Hardship Fund and the Covid-19 Fund; 794 had qualified and registered, and 557 applications would be assessed by Friday.

Wits had a large cohort of missing middle students who did not qualify for NSFAS funding. Students who had household incomes on the fringe of the NSFAS threshold required financial assistance. Some of the students did not qualify academically or did not meet NSFAS’s administrative requirements, and required assistance. Now, NSFAS’s confirmation of funding was not aligned to the University’s registration period.

As for historic debt, Wits had made many concessions in recent years which had allowed students to register, but that had contributed to the accumulation of historical debt. The downturn in the economy and the coronavirus pandemic had impacted on the ability of students and families to pay fees and to pay off debt.

Wits University Student Representative Council (SRC) Briefing

Mr Mpendula Mfeka, SRC President: Wits University, touched on financial crisis; police brutality; student victimisation; academic issues; Wits SRC demands; and recommendations.

He commenced his presentation with an executive summary in which he indicated that Wits University was at risk of financially excluding over 6 000 deserving students. At the start of this academic year this number had been over 8 000. Secondly, Wits University had excluded a number first year students for the 2020 academic year. Some of these first years had been expected to start their academic journeys online, without any prior computer skills. Thirdly, violent crime and gender-based violence (GBV) remained rife in Braamfontein due to student homelessness.  The Wits SRC, together with the City of Johannesburg (CoJ), had since introduced a crime prevention strategy to curb this violence. Wits University was yet to put systems in place to address student homelessness.

Providing context to Wits University, only 20% to 25% of the student population were on the NSFAS. Most of our students were missing middle (55% to 60%). These were students who come from families with a combined house-hold income of less than R600 0000 but above R350 000 per annum. Put differently, these students were too “rich” to be on NSFAS, yet too poor to pay back student loans or their fees directly. With emphasis, these were the students who had been left behind -- 6 332 of them to be exact. We were seeing major protests due to this issue.

As for the financial crisis, in the interim the SRC was calling for the registration of all students at Wits University.  2020 was the hardest year in recent academic history, and for reasons related to the difficulties faced by the entire world, it was the position of the Wits SRC that the University’s financial rules must be relaxed. Among the 6 000-plus students who were at financial risk, there were a fair number of final year students who would soon contribute to SA’s developing economy and other sectors. Given the exorbitant fee structure of Wits University, the SRC finds that very few students -- particularly those from the missing middle category -- would be able to settle their half debt at this moment in order to be eligible for registration. 

Further, it must be noted that a fair number of our NSFAS-funded students remain under the capped NSFAS regime of 6% of the NSFAS population at Wits University. These students were unable to graduate upon completion of their studies due to student historical debt. It was a public fact that Wits University had money sitting in reserves that could be used to help these students, given the current crisis. He stressed that there were not enough funding opportunities for these students, whether it be scholarships, bursaries etc, especially in the Covid-19 era. The SRC and the University had established the Hardship Fund four years ago to address the financial crisis at the University. This fund remained an insufficient intervention. As a solution, the SRC had taken an initiative to raise R21 million in 2021, but its efforts to raise this money had since also come short. The SRC’s solution was that adopted by the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) - bluntly, to allow all students to register and make them sign an acknowledgement of debt (AOD), if needed.

[See presentation for further details]

South African Union of Students (SAUS) on 2021 academic year

Mr Misheck Mugabe, President: South African Union of Students (SAUS), said a meeting of all university SRC members on 8 March had resolved that a memorandum of demands be submitted to the Minister. SAUS had convened a meeting from 13 to 14 March to discuss the 15 demands submitted with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), USAF and NSFAS. The responses had been unsatisfactory, and as a result a national shutdown was declared, starting from 15 March. The 15 demands were divided into financial exclusion and academic exclusion.

In response to the current status quo, we have written to Vice Chancellors through USAF encouraging them to cooperate with SRC members in advancing these demands forward. We were organizing another meeting between SRCs and the Minister for Sunday the 21st of March 2021 to assess progress on the demands. Currently the national shutdown continues until our demands were met.

He concluded by submitting that there was a need for the Portfolio Committee to sponsor a motion in Parliament to deal with the R13 billion clearance of student debt. SAUS requested institutions to make concessions regarding the 100% clearance of students for registration. NSFAS needed speedily to resolve matters of appeals, laptops and allowances, and continuous stakeholder engagements was encouraged.

Discussion

Chairperson’s comments
The Chairperson said the Committee had been expecting to receive a briefing from the Department of Science and Innovation, but unfortunately due to time constraints, the it had decided to cancel that briefing in order to have enough time to engage on the student issues that were now of national interest.

After receiving all the presentations from the stakeholders, there was now a guided discussion which involved students who were eligible for funding from NSFAS – those who were approved and those who had appealed. Government policy was clear on this issue, and what was being implemented was government policy. There was enough money that had been prioritised. At some point, the Committee would have to engage the Department on the impact of the reallocation – the money that had already been reallocated to the Department, the R3 billion coming from the National Skills Fund (NSF), and how this reprioritisation would affect the NSF.

The second set of issues was around the missing middle, which was prevalent at Wits University. There was no policy around this issue. The Department had submitted that there were about 6 600 students affected by this, and there was no national plan to deal with this.

Thirdly, the focus would be on historic debt, which was estimated to be about R14 billion. This was growing, and it affected the students who were supposed to register and continue their studies. There were various ways in which universities were treating this matter. At Wits University, they required about 50% payment of historic debt. Other institutions allowed students to register without paying any portion of the debt as they continued to find solutions. Yesterday, the Committee was with the University of Zululand, whose fees were the lowest, and it was able to respond to the challenge and allow students with historic debt to register.

The discussion between the Minister and universities was noted, as was the proposal that there must be a certain category of students who should be allowed to register when they have completed the agreement of acknowledgement of debt. Perhaps institutions must be engaged to allow all students to register, especially those who were performing well academically, whilst government and institutions were still discussing the matter of historic debt. Once the solution was found, no student should be left behind in the system.

The issue of victimisation of students must be attended to. All these issues were a matter of policy, but with NSFAS it was more about efficiency.

He asked the Wits University about the student debt and its impact regarding the financial viability of the institution in relation to the overall budget. What was the proportion of the student debt in relation to the institution’s overall debt?

What would be the impact on the university if it allowed all of the 6 600 students who were not able to pay the 50% portion of the debt, to register? What were the possibilities of allowing all the students to register? Once they were registered, surely a solution would be found down the line.

Students had raised quite a number of issues, which contradicted the submissions from the University’s leadership.

There were different responses from different institutions. One would find that even universities that were not well off had been able to find solutions or allow the students with historic debt to register. With universities that were historically well off, one would find that there was a level of rigidity in dealing with student demands.

With regard to Usaf, as an association of Vice Chancellors, what degree of flexibility was there in that association to ensure that one would not find the current disruption erupting again? Why were students not being allowed to register until a solution was found?

Deputy Minister leaves meeting

Mr Buti Manamela, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, commented on the extension of the meeting, and said that he had to chair a meeting that would be taking place at 13h00. The only other person that was expected to be in that meeting was Prof Bawa from Usaf -- the rest of the stakeholders were not party to that meeting.

It would be difficult to wait for the other stakeholders to wait for another hour, as requested by the Chairperson. He suggested that the Ministry could ask an official from the Department to remain behind in order to respond to all the questions of the Members.

The Chairperson said that it was unfortunate that this meeting had been convened against the backdrop of what was happening in the institutions of higher learning across the country. The Committee had received a briefing from the Minister this morning, and he had expressed his concern at not being able to stay due to an urgent matter he had to attend to. The Minister had indicated that he would leave the Deputy Minister behind to engage on his behalf. Now the Deputy Minister was submitting that he would need to be excused.

He would be very disappointed if that was going to be the case, because it meant that the meeting would have to be terminated and scheduled for another day to engage with the Ministry. Members could not speak alone. It was at the discretion of the Deputy Minister to stay or leave the meeting, but he believed that it would be very inappropriate if the latter happened. In as much as flexibility was requested from institutions, that very same flexibility must also be exercised by the leadership of the Department. This was a very important platform of oversight.

Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC) said that it was a difficult situation, but the Committee had the responsibility to hold all the stakeholders accountable. It was important to have the Department present, because it also needed to hold some of the stakeholders present accountable. It would be very important that there was political leadership in the meeting. Members understood the importance of the following meeting, but Parliament must also be allowed to have the space to deal with these matters. It would therefore be appreciated of the Deputy Minister stayed in the meeting.

Mr W Letsie (ANC) said that those students who could afford to pay for registration must pay for it. The Department, through NSFAS, could not afford to apply a blanket approach to all students, even to those who could afford registration. The reprioritisation that had been made for NSFAS would come back to haunt them.

The Chairperson interjected, and submitted that the Members were now deciding whether the Deputy Minister should be allowed to leave, or what should happen. The rest of the issues that had been ventilated would be discussed once this matter had been resolved.

The Committee was faced with a dilemma, because the Minister was not available and now the Deputy Minister was requesting to leave for another meeting. He would not be comfortable continuing with the meeting in the absence of both the Minister and the Deputy Minister at this current moment.

Mr Letsie concurred that the issues required political leadership to be present in order to properly engage on these issues. These matters required the presence of the political leadership, otherwise, the meeting should be terminated.

Ms J Mananiso (ANC) also agreed, and submitted that the Deputy Minister must be persuaded to stay. If he could not, then the meeting should be terminated for another day.

Ms D Sibiya (ANC) also agreed with the proposal for termination.

Deputy Minister Manamela said that he took this meeting and the following meeting very seriously, so the next meeting – the task team meeting – had been scheduled for later in the afternoon to allow the Committee meeting to take place while they were present. Several stakeholders and participants who were participating in the next meeting were dealing with the same issues, and it would be unfair to expect them at short notice to be informed that the next meeting would be postponed for an hour. Thirdly, there were a series of meetings, even after the task team meeting, whose intention was to resolve the same issues.

The Committee did not have to terminate the meeting because there was an Acting DDG for universities, and Prof Bawa had indicated that he would stay and he would delegate someone else from the university branch to participant in that task team meeting. If the Committee felt strongly that the Acting DDG was not adequate to respond to the issues that may come out of the engagement, then they should find another time to engage.

The Chairperson lamented, saying that he had never experienced this situation before. This had been convened as an urgent meeting, given the nature of the challenges faced by the sector. The Committee had made a submission to the Department, requesting an invitation for engagement. The meeting had been scheduled from 9am to 1pm, but due to the number of stakeholders that were present, time could not be honoured as he had hoped.

The nature of the discussion on this platform required the involvement of the Minister and the Deputy Minister. Some of these issues were policy matters, and the administration was here only to implement those policies. There was a limit to what the DDG could go in terms of providing the responses. Some of the stakeholders would make a valid point that they had elected the political leadership and that leadership was the entity that was accountable to the nation, not the administration – the administration implemented policy. There were matters that were always set aside for the political leadership.

Ms Mkhatshwa said that Members were not happy. This spoke to the challenges the Committee had experienced in arranging this meeting. The Committee had requested an update from the Department on multiple occasions on how they were coping with the 2020 academic year. Members also wanted an update on the state of readiness for 2021, noting how difficult this year would be under these difficult circumstances. When they finally had a meeting on Wednesday last week, it did not have the consistent and full attendance of the executive. Again this week, when the conversation had now escalated because of what had happened on campuses, they could not have the continuous and full attendance and cooperation of the executive. This was highly problematic – it indicated a level of not appreciating the importance of the role Members had to play.

The Chairperson said was unfortunate that the meeting had to be terminated – the Committee was only requesting an additional hour to engage on these matters. These issues had not been discussed properly since the strikes had commenced.

He was extremely disappointed, because it carried a message that they did not care about the issues that the students were facing.

The Committee would schedule a meeting for Tuesday next week. Approval would be requested to meet next week and all the present stakeholders would be invited again for engagement. One would think that the issues that were being dealt with at this level took precedence, but there were some who had a wrong understanding of the role of the legislature and Parliament, that they could be treated like this.

He hoped that the students would be given some level of assurance that their issues were being attended to at this level.

The Committee extended its appreciation, and apologised to the stakeholders that the meeting could not continue on this platform. It would meet with all the stakeholders again next week Tuesday.

He reiterated that he was extremely disappointed by this, but perhaps further discussions on this resolution may be extended beyond this platform.

The meeting was adjourned.
 

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