Higher Education protests: stakeholder engagement; with Ministry (continued)

Higher Education, Science and Technology

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

Video: Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology, 23 March 2021

The Committee continued its virtual engagement with Wits University and its SRC, South African Union of Students (SAUS) and Universities South Africa (USAf) from the 17 March meeting. SAUS made a supplementary submission detailing outcomes over the last week.

Wits University SRC stated it has managed to fundraise R3.6 million, which it would happily transfer to the Wits University to allow the remaining 3% students to register. Members were pleased and encouraged the university to heed such efforts as they sought to ensure that no student is left behind. The Committee welcomed the commitment by Wits University to extend its registration period to allow students to register. Wits University committed itself to raise funds on its centenary to address the missing middle and historic debt of students, which is always a source of contention at the beginning of each academic year.

The Minister informed the Committee that a profiling students with debt was underway to understand how much is owed and by which students and how much of that debt is recoverable so government can determine an appropriate intervention, given the current fiscal constraints. Through this process, an appropriate policy intervention will be developed to deal with student debt. The Minister will take this data to Cabinet in June.

The Minister also pleaded with SAUS that in its fight to get students registered and assisted with historic debt, it must acknowledge that government has met its policy commitment in providing funding to poor and working class students. That must not be disregarded. The biggest challenge was assisting the missing middle students due to budgetary constraints.

SAUS believed that there was a policy vacuum to address the funding needs of students who fall outside the R350 000 threshold. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) threshold should be raised. There is a need for a national plan to fund the missing middle. It also made calls about police brutality and an end to the use of rubber bullets during student protests.

Members asked about the plan for 'missing middle' students; balancing NSFAS funding against other skills development needs; how the National Skills Fund programmes that will be impacted by the budget reprioritisation; government spending on universities; best practice and lessons learnt from online and blended learning learnt during Covid-19; an analysis of the remaining 3% students unable to register; distribution of laptops; if NSFAS will establish offices on campuses; and if blended learning would affect staff retention at institutions. The Committee wanted a briefing on the assessment of the level of success with the introduction of a multi-modal learning system in 2020.

The Committee was displeased with the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) Vice Chancellor and management not making itself available for oversight. The Committee rejected its apology that the meeting was at short notice and it would be summoned to appear.

Meeting report

Opening remarks
The Chairperson reminded the Committee that the previous week all the presentations were made and now was the opportunity for engagement on the matters that were presented to the Committee by the stakeholders. He urged Members to guide the discussion towards providing solutions.

The Committee requested stakeholders to make supplementary submissions but only SAUS would be making a supplementary submission.

The Committee will meet later with the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT); the situation at CPUT was not good at all; there is some level of defiance by the leadership of that institution to come before the Committee.

Minister’s Remarks
The Minister said that at the heart of the issue NSFAS students are catered for, which is government’s policy. This is the R350 000 criteria – this is catered for. The government policy is being addressed meaning that we continue having free higher education for the poor and the working class. The challenge is now with categories of students who do not qualify for NSFAS – the missing middle. So far, government has been engaging with universities to ascertain what they can do to help address this but this is beyond government’s commitment. After engaging with the universities, they informed the Ministry that they were engaging with their SRC internally on which students qualified to be allowed to register within the criteria set by the university. The criterion is that within the means that the university has, it will accept students that were doing well academically and allow those students to sign acknowledgement of debt agreements. One of the institution that has done this successfully is the University of the Western Cape. UWC has gone as far as accepting students that are doing well academically to register. Wits has identified the number of the students that it thought are deserving cases and it would see how far it can go.  

Cabinet has taken a decision that the Minister must go back to Cabinet by June with a proposal – a framework on how government can deal with student funding, including the missing middle. He has since asked universities to provide data that government can look at to see what can be done to assist the genuine cases. That data is the profile of student debt in institutions brought together.

Government is interested in finding out if there is debt that can be written off and to find out the profile of the students that owe. There are students who owe that genuinely come from the ‘missing middle’ but there are also students that come from families who can afford to pay for their studies. It is important a distinction is made to make a profile from these students’ data. He hoped to get that data by 26 March from the universities.

The best bet so far are the discussions and negotiations at institutional level, because when that data comes back, he has to take it back to Cabinet – and he could not say what government can do for those categories of students as things stand now, because according to its NSFAS policy, government has delivered. With that said, we understand the plight of these students hence we are now collecting data on the profile of students that owe. In this way government will know the exact detail of the student profile and to what extent is the nature of this issue.   

We must not conflate NSFAS and the missing middle students. There is free higher education for the poor and the working class, which government is honouring.

We now need to hear what questions stakeholders have for him but he was engaging with USAf and the Ministerial Task Team chaired by the Deputy Minister as well as SAUS to ascertain what can be done moving forward. This engagement will be taking place at the end of the week.

The Chairperson thanked the Minister saying his comments were helpful in situating the problem. It helps to guide the discussions that will ensue.

South African Union of Students (SAUS) supplementary briefing
Mr Thabo Shingange, SAUS National Spokesperson, said that since 17 March meeting a number of developments have occurred. The presentation covered details of the outcome of meetings that have happened since the 17 March meeting with the Committee (see document).

The Chairperson thanked SAUS for its supplementary presentation.

Ms C King (DA) said that the situation was very concerning and it is obvious that NSFAS did not have funding from the get-go and it should have been honest with the Members. NSFAS should have disclosed that it would have a R6.8 billion shortfall. To address this shortfall the Department has just put a plaster on a deeper wound – this will be here for years to come if a permanent solution is not devised or if NSFAS is not overhauled; otherwise, year-in-year-out, the country will be held ransom by student protests.

The Minister must clarify why the Herer Commission report was not scrutinised properly. Will the Department look at the Herr Commission report; if not, can the Department look at establishing a multi-party ad hoc committee to look at student funding in the long run. Sustainably, the bursary scheme will not work; we need to re-look at the loan mechanism and actually get SARS involved in ensuring that the money is recouped from those students who go on to work at a certain salary level. This will make NSFAS more sustainable. At the moment we have a R34.5 billion in payouts, by next year it might R50 billion and the following year over R60 billion. This is not sustainable. Free education at the basic level may be sustainable, but at the higher level it is not absolute. Hence, we suggest a loan model that says those that are within the R350 000 benchmark are covered completely – with accommodation, transport and tuition which can be converted into a bursary once these students meet the academic criteria.

What is also concerning is that NSFAS is not streamlining its funding to critical skills; hence, most of the student would still have no investment into the economy because they have gone into a market that is saturated and struggle to find employment.

We need to look seriously into the missing middle students because it is going to escalate and the loan approach would work for them. The biggest concern is that we have now taken the funding from universities, which already had a R26.4 billion shortfall; how is NSFAS going to fund students in the years ahead?

She agreed that the missing middle cases should be looked at at institutional level and on a case by case basis.

The longer NSFAS did not make a pronouncement on the students eligible for funding to receive the funding, the fight on the streets will continue. NSFAS must be clear and tell us the exact date when institutions will be receiving the money so that students can go to class peacefully.

She suggested that the missing middle is assisted through the loan agreements.

Lastly, the higher institutions are over-enrolled. It is causing a serious crisis for the university system whereas the Department should have upgraded TVET Colleges and streamlined some of the critical skills in the colleges.

Mr T Letsie (ANC) commented on CPUT and lobbied the meeting to agree to the proposal to subpoena CPUT to appear before the Committee. There are a lot of issues in that institution that require swift resolution and its leadership is dragging its feet to come before the Committee.

There are a number of NSFAS students doing well academically or who met the criteria who were not yet registered – the majority were returning students. MPs have been contacted by these students appealing to them to intervene and assist. The students were now sitting at home and frustrated waiting for a pronouncement on their financial status. The NDP states that students who do not qualify for NSFAS should be able to access funding through bank loans with government providing surety. The 2019-2024 MTSF prioritised the development of sustainable policy on the missing middle. The Minister briefed the Committee on 19 June 2020 on addressing the missing middle. Can the Minister provide clarity on the plan to address the missing middle?

One of the measures implemented by government to address the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 was the four months holiday on the skills development levy contribution. Most companies that contributed towards the skills levy have been impacted with some closed down and others were still struggling. This meant that the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) and the National Skills Fund (NSF) have reduced income for the 2021 MTEF period. The reprioritisation of R3.3 billion from NSF to address the NSFAS funding shortfall would have an adverse effect on the skills development intervention, in particular unemployed youth. Is this indicative of the level of importance of university students over training of SMMEs and cooperatives and learners trained through community based skills initiatives?

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has committed to produce 30 000 artisans by 2030. In addition there is the list of occupations in high demand and most of those occupations are not offered by institutions. How is DHET going to balance funding the NSFAS shortfall and the other skills needed? What NSF programmes will be impacted by this reprioritisation? Is this reprioritisation going to come from the NSF 2021/22 budget?

Government announced in 2017 that government spending on higher education will increase from 0.68% to 1% as a percentage of the GDP over the next five years. What is the current government spending on universities as a percentage of the GDP?

Government should further investigate the viability of online and blended learning as an additional mechanism to deal with capacity challenges across the post-school education and training (PSET) sector. How do we capitalise on the best practices learnt during Covid-19?

To USAf, a blanket approach to dealing with student historic debt will be detrimental to the financial sustainability of some institutions. Some institutions are better off than others and can afford to allow students funded by NSFAS to register and those within the missing middle.

What would USAf recommend to the Committee in the funding of universities in light of the current challenges?

To SAUS and Wits University SRC, there are some students who matriculated from expensive private schools but when these students get to higher education institutions, they want free education. These students must be persuaded to pay if they can afford their studies.

Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC) said that Members would like to see the instability that occurs at the beginning of every year come to an end. There must be a collective projection by the sector on the challenges students face at the beginning of the year. The inability of NSFAS to rollout the initial payments to institutions at the start of the year was explained but the Committee has noted that this had a great impact on the sector.

There seems to be a greater effort by institutions whose financial status is not very stable to make concessions for students to register, but those with better financial standing do not come on board in making those concessions. This is something that must be observed as a sector and perhaps institutional autonomy is setting us back in creating synergy between institutions.

To Wits University, has there been a consideration to conclude registration only by 30 March as requested by the Wits SRC?

There has been much concern by the Wits SRC about the statistics provided by Wits University on the student registration. What the SRC notes are the statistics must be match those presented by management.

She asked if Wits University was still sitting with 97% students registered or if there have been any developments since the 17 March engagement. If 97% has been registered, surely the remaining 3% should be able to be considered under concessions made by the institution. Has the institution been able to make an analysis on which of the remaining 3% students were able to pay and which students were not able to pay?

The Wits SRC raised concerns about the multiple fundraising campaigns of institutions. Of the money raised, the institution indicated that it has only been able to assist 794 students and 557 students were still being assessed. She asked for an update. Do the multiple fundraising strategies of the university have capacity to assist the students that the SRC has referred for assistance? The institution has acknowledged that many parents have been affected by the socio-economic impact of Covid-19; what concessions speak directly to that consideration?

Wits University says that in 2020, 9 645 students were on NSFAS and it is aware of 6 419 students that should be on NSFAS in 2021. It was still waiting for confirmation from NSFAS on other students to get the final figure. The figures she received from NSFAS stated that in 2020 there were 10 597 students. She asked for clarity on the difference in numbers.

She was concerned that DHET allowed institutions to decide individually on the blended learning approach. She would appreciate clarity on the Wits University approach to social distancing mechanisms in the residences and on campus and if the SRC has been consulted on this approach? The SRC must communicate such decisions to its constituents.

She sought clarity on the laptops because there was disjuncture between the SRC and management on this matter.

On students who were still waiting for their financial support to be approved by NSFAS; how do we ensure that these students do not lose their place in their institution while they wait?

The SRC has mentioned being denied access to campus. This is problematic and management needs to resolve it because the SRC is part of the governance structure of the institution. She sought confirmation if suspension letters were sent out to some of the SRC members.

On police brutality, it is important that a review is conducted on police and private security on campus. There must be standardisation of securitisation on campuses. There should be assistance with conflict resolution. She suggested that there must be a workshop on safety and security to explain to police on how they must execute their responsibilities in a democratic South Africa.

Data access continues to be a concern in the sector; we need to accelerate the confirmation between DSI, Department of Communications and DHET with network providers because students were still struggling with connectivity. The Committee must indeed conduct its oversight at NSFAS because the challenges continue to be a concern.

Ms J Mananiso (ANC) suggested that NSFAS needs to deploy officials to institutions to assist beneficiaries. This can also be done through posters on campuses as a medium of communication to assist students with enquiries on their financial status.

She asked USAf about the funds that have been reprioritised to cater for the NSFAS shortfall and how this going to impact their funding this academic year?

She asked the Minister to provide the date when he would be reporting back to Cabinet in June.

Ms N Marchesi (DA) asked about measures for students unable to attend university due to Covid-19 impacts. Secondly, there are students from families where the combined household income was more than the R350 000 threshold but those families would have more than one or two children at university at the same time. Are these cases looked at on a case by case basis? Is there legislation that covers students who would like to go to university but cannot because the parent refuses to pay for the education? Is there a legislation that can hold a parent accountable? Is there a model that can be looked at such as loans to assist the missing middle students which is repaid once they have completed their studies and find work?

Mr M Nxumalo (IFP) said the sector is saturated by many riots at the start of the academic year and this needed to be addressed. Ten years later, we see the same problems. Have we not done enough research on what causes these riots to erupt at higher education institutions and how best these can be managed?

Ms King asked if NSFAS has considered establishing offices in university spaces, and if studies were done on how blended learning would affect the retention of staff at the institutions.

The Chairperson said that there is an assertion made by Wits University student leadership that the numbers used by management are not the same as the numbers the SRC has collected. According to the SRC there are still over 6 000 students not registered. Can we get clarity? If 97% of students have registered, why is it difficult to accommodate the remaining 3%? After the meeting, there was an announcement by Wits University on the students that owe; what is the percentage of students who owe? Wits SRC has indicated it is not allowed access to the university; why is the SRC not allowed access when it is part of the governance structure? The SRC must not be denied access to campus. There is a victimisation of students as result of being vocal; are the SRC members who have been suspended the result of them being vocal on campus?

He asked NSFAS how many appeals it was dealing with and the number of students still awaiting a funding decision. In 2020/21, DHET received less allocation which resulted in the NSFAS shortfall. This is a big problem that higher education continues to be under-funded and as a result we see strikes erupt. The NSFAS shortfall should have already been addressed. Treasury was aware that there was going to be a shortfall but nothing was done to address that shortfall.

Going forward, there is a need to clearly agree on the priorities of the democratic state and fund these priorities. What is emerging is the issue of historic debt and the missing middle – there is a commitment that Department will go back to Cabinet in June on the profiling of these two matters.

Minister’s response
The Minister said that the Ministry interacts with the stakeholders in other platforms. He is glad that SUAS has said what it has said to the Committee. SAUS would be meeting with the Vice Chancellors soon and then the Ministry later on in the week. Hopefully, these further engagements will provide more clarity. We are anxious that the shutdown must be called off as soon as possible because we are worried that the academic year is already short. The sooner we start the academic year the better as we are faced with the prospect of a third wave, which may delay the sector even further.

Stakeholders such as SAUS do not acknowledge that government has honoured its side of the deal as far as NSFAS is concerned. SAUS does not represent only non-NSFAS students but also NSFAS beneficiaries. It knows this and it would be good if SAUS acknowledged that government has met its side of the deal. This will help distinguish between what has been done and what is left to be done and the real outstanding matters.

When the announcement was made in December 2018, there was not a sufficient look at the Herer Commission recommendations. Hence DHET has agreed with National Treasury that in preparing for the report-back to Cabinet, it will look very closely at the Herer Commission recommendations.

With the mandate he was given by Cabinet, he has constituted a Ministerial Task Team. Parliament can have its own but he did not feel that it was necessary as the Ministerial Task was inclusive and would take into consideration the views of other stakeholders.

As for NSFAS funding, one only hope that it will clarified in the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) and next year’s budget.

NSFAS can respond about the processing of applications. It is important that NSFAS focuses on strengthening itself.

The Minister said that it is up to the Committee to issue a subpoena to CPUT.

On the missing middle, there is already a lot of data. In his earliest stint as the Minister, he had initiated a process to address the missing middle. This led to the establishment of the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP), which has incidentally received an award from some black business council. At that time Cabinet did not take a final decision on this matter and everything was overtaken by the announcement to establish the new DHET bursary fund. That announcement did not deal with the missing middle. There were lots of inputs on the missing middle in the Herer Commission Report. It was an extensive process. The information already contained in that Report would assist Members.

MPs have a duty to say we cannot continually be taking every cent identifiable to pay for university students when there are other programmes that are equally important such as the NSF caters for.

The Minister was working with Unizulu to conduct a study to establish the reasons behind the challenges that cause instability each year in the universities. He would also look deeper at security on campuses.

The data collection may not be complete at this moment, but we hope that by the end of the week more data would have come in to give us a clear picture on the profile of the students that owe.

Government amended its policy to say that those parents that earn beyond the R350 000 threshold can appeal to NSFAS for help if they have more than one child at university at the same time.

There is no compulsory education bill beyond the age of 18 years.

He is concerned about the instability every year – it is like a soapie now, like the Bold and the Beautiful. At the start of each year there is instability, which is partly why he was conducting the study with Unizulu. If the missing middle issue is settled, he believed that every year would start peacefully in the sector.

In his earlier stint as Minister, the debt was settled for students owing NSFAS. Even Minister Naledi Pandor did this and provided debt relief to pre-2018 NSFAS-owing students. These students were also allowed to register to study regardless of the debt they owed.

How do we ensure that in funding NSFAS, we do not end up de-funding the rest of the sector as this would be counter-productive? He was happy that the Committee raised this matter and it was siezed with this matter. We are creating a problem by increasing NSFAS funding and decreasing funding in other essential programmes in the sector.

He acknowledged the receipt of the letter of demands from the TVET sector and the Ministry was looking into these matters.

Wits University SRC
Mr Mpendulo Mfeka, Wits University SRC President, spoke about the registration crisis at Wits University and said that the SRC has raised about R3.6 million. The University states that there was only 3% of students that had not been yet registered. The numbers have been a sketchy topic throughout the deliberations with the University leadership. The SRC agreed to take that 3% as is and transfer that R3.6 million without question and allow everyone to register. As time proceeds, the SRC will try and raise more money. If it is indeed only 3%, the money the SRC has managed to raised should at least cover most of those students for registration.

On the students set to be allowed to register – the SRC Hardship Fund applicants – those students are still unable to register because they cannot access information at this time. Can the University send communication to these students informing them to register?

Two SRC members have been suspended by the University which  hinders them because they cannot participate in their studies and in their duties as SRC members.

On the police brutality, the SRC would like to request that rubber bullets and guns not be used against students when they are protesting. We have seen what they have done to some of the students and Mthokozisi Ntumba. The trauma is extreme for students and we request a ceasefire.

Many students have already lost part of the academic year and hopefully there will be a pronouncement from the university on student registration.

Wits University response
Mr Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits University Vice Chancellor, said the university appreciated the efforts of the SRC to raise funds. The university has also established a Vice-Chancellor’s Covid-19 student relief fund of R10 million to allow students to register and it will be flexible in allowing the remaining students to register. He had instructed the Dean of Student Affairs and the Registrar to continue over the weekend with the registration process.

The numbers are dynamic and as the registration continues the numbers shift and continue to change. We are now with the list that has been put together by the SRC and the Dean of Student Affairs and that is the list that will be used going forward.

The 6 000 students is a cumulative historic number of students who did not progress academically. Some of these students may be in formal employment and some may have left the institution many years ago. This number is kept as a record.  

The university has addressed current applications in partnership with the SRC through the Wits Hardship Fund in accordance with the qualifying criteria.

On the suspension of the students, two students disrupted an exam on 8 March – the scripts were torn. This infringed on the rights of others to write their exams without interference. It is therefore, the responsibility of management to ensure that accountability is implemented across the system. The right to protest does not mean that one should infringe the rights of others. The students were given the suspension order, which did not preclude them from continuing with their academics. None of the suspensions have anything to do with the campus protests. The SRC members have been allowed to stay in residences and participate in their academic programmes. We need to rethink the system and work around conflict management and resolution.

Lastly, on NSFAS, this is a generic matter. Last year the university was able to bridge that funding and earlier this year the university allowed students who are on NSFAS to enrol and register while the institution was still waiting for the money from NSFAS.

As for the missing middle, the university is starting a centenary campaign to raise funds and through this funding, the university will try to assist the missing middle students.

He was also prepared to provide a written submission on some of the items that Members raised as it related to the University.

The Chairperson said that it was pleasing that there was acknowledgement that lessons must be learnt from the disagreements that happened during the registration process. The Committee acknowledged and accepts the commitment of management to be flexible towards students that still needed to register. The Committee would like to thank Wits University management for this.

The Committee will also appreciate the written submission.

The Committee has the view that there is a need for an assessment of the levels of success and lessons learnt as a result of the introduction of multi-modal learning system.

SAUS response
Mr Shingange replied on the missing middle matter that there is no fundamental difference between a student coming from a R350 000 per annum threshold and a student from  a R351 000 threshold. The missing middle is systemically created by government. The next step is for the Minister to say that NSFAS is covered but there is a still a large pool of students who fall outside this criterion who are still too poor and cannot afford to enter universities due to lack of finance. R350 000 per annum is about R29 000 per month and SAUS believes that this definition must be increased for the missing middle in the country. SAUS believes that the threshold definition should perhaps go as far as R650 000 per annum for household income. This is informed by the fact that if you R1 million per annum – after deductions and tax of about 40% you will take home about R500 000 per annum. SAUS argument is that such an individual still cannot afford university fees in this country, which costs around R100 000 including accommodation.

The R350 000 threshold creates the systemic challenge of a missing middle. This threshold is not realistic because it does not take into account inflation and the economic constraints of the last three years. The VAT increase was meant to cover the shortfall but the Minister has said that DHET has taken money from the TVET Infrastructure Grant and the NSF. However, that is a temporary solution which creates a bigger problem the following year when the TVET sector cannot have development. The real issue is the Minister of Finance cuts budgets and Members of Parliament adopt those budgets. Members sympathise with the students about funding but yet Parliament adopts those budget cuts. We need to create a serious review of how student debt is addressed in the country.

Mr Shingange said that the Wits University VC that the two SRC members were not suspended because of the protest but due to disrupting examinations. This is not true. Those SRC members were suspended because of the protest. The examination disruption was created during the protest. These suspensions must be lifted.

The student debt bailouts continue to be a serious matter. SAUS agrees with the Minister that indeed Minister Pandor issued a bailout but this was for R1 billion. The required estimated bailout is R13.7 billion which covers students outside the NSFAS threshold. These students need to be able to access their academic record and find meaningful employment.

Mr Yandisa Nzoyiya, SAUS National Organiser, stated that SAUS rejects the proposal of a student loan for students that fall outside the household income threshold for NSFAS funding. Students fought so hard during the Fees Must Fall campaign to ensure that free education is delivered.

Part of the delays in the process were attributed to the Minister refusing to engage with SAUS. Now it has come to light that he will be meeting with SAUS sometime this week.

SAUS wants to lobby Parliament that all MPs engage on student debt. This is the fastest growing debt in the country.

Usually the student leadership would engage with the Minister at the beginning of each academic year or before the academic year commences to discuss matters that affect students. However, these comrades do not want to meet with the student leadership. SAUS would like to urge stakeholders in the sector to take part in these meetings to discuss student matters before the academic year commences to avoid protests. If the stakeholders continue to refuse engaging with the student leadership, then the national shutdown will be upheld. With that said, SAUS would really like to work together with the Portfolio Committee to address student matters.

USAf response
Prof Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer: USAf responded to the instability to the system. He agreed with this sentiment and that it has now become an annual event in the PSET system. In meeting with the Minister last week, this was thoroughly discussed as well as the key issues, which is student funding and accommodation. Secondly, we agreed with the Minister that he will take the lead in putting together a national process that will address the issue of student funding and produce a sustainable and long lasting solution. We have to take into account the constraints in the fiscus but a solution is definitely needed.

All 26 universities have programmes in place to address the issue for this year. The solution that has been adopted this year is ensuring that we are treating universities a ‘going concern’ and some are close to financial crisis, than others. We cannot continue to carry on this way. Then the VCs and Councils must ensure the sustainability of these institutions.

Budget cuts that will significantly affect the sector will still continue and there have been significant cuts in funding from external sources as well. We have to think of higher education as areas of investment not expenditure. The product of the teaching outputs feed into the economy. This might change the way we think about the challenge that we are facing.

It is still early to formulate rigorous ideas about the impact of blended learning. There is a project underway in partnership with the Council on Higher Education (CHE) from the teaching and learning strategy group, which looks at the impact and the analysis of blended learning. At this point in time, we need to understand that blended learning is not solely about remote learning – it is a combination of contact learning, and using technology. This does not change the staffing structure of universities. Therefore, at this point in time there is no impact on employment at universities.

The Chairperson said that the point about the introduction of multi-modal learning is to conduct an assessment on the lessons learnt during the introduction of this system. This will include the levels of success, because this was an emergency arrangement due to Covid-19. DHET was working on this and it would soon brief the Committee on the findings.

NSFAS response
Mr Andile Nongogo, NSFAS Chief Executive Officer,  said that it has indicated that it will pay all allowances within three days after the DHET allocation has been received. NSFAS has no control on when this allocation will be paid to it.

As for continuing students, NSFAS has communicated to institutions for these students to be registered. There are about 17 000 students that cannot be registered. About 6 300 of them are registered in qualifications (legacy qualifications) that are not funded, and we have communicated to institutions to put these students into funded qualifications. For the other 10 700 students, SARS has indicated different background circumstances to be eligible for NSFAS criteria to receive funding. It has given itself up to the 25 March to clear all issues that are within its control.

As for new intakes, about 813 000 students applied to NSFAS – and 719 000 are eligible for funding. For about 27 906 we are waiting for supporting documents. These documents must be verified as well as payslips. These are the missing documents that cannot be verified by NSFAS or by any third source and NSFAS awaits the submission of these documents by the applicants. There are about 89 570 that were found not to meet the requirements.

About 58 000 students have registered and NSFAS was now waiting for the remaining 630 584 students to be received, based on the numbers eligible for funding.

NSFAS is continually working on addressing its challenges. On the deployment of NSFAS officials in institutions, this will be taken up by DHET. This is one of the matters that is being addressed by the Ministerial Task Team.

NSFAS has received 11 329 appeals from continuing students and 4 827 have been approved and 1 706 still had to submit supporting documents; 2 964 were rejected, 121 were withdrawn and 1 711 still required supporting documents.

NSFAS is expecting the first batch of laptops to arrive on 18 April. We setting up task teams with the TVETs and universities to discuss and set priority lists in terms of student need.

DHET response
Acting Deputy Director-General: University Education, Dr Thandi Lewin, said the Minister spoke about the NSFAS debt of qualifying students. This matter came up in 2013, 2016 and again in 2019. In 2019 the matter was addressed by former Minister Pandor and R1.7 billion was transferred to NSFAS to deal with it. This was part of the due diligence process following the announcement of the new DHET bursary in December 2017.

The policy commitment that government made about providing funding for poor and working class students – government has met its commitments. The challenge of the missing middle and most of the sector’s challenges will need to be addressed as part of the policy review to address issues from 2022 onwards as well as long-term student funding. This work has been ongoing and there are aspects underway for this policy review process. It will also look into policy on families that have more than one student in tertiary education and the R350 000 threshold.

What is becoming better understood as we talk in more detail about the work NSFAS does is that it is important at institutional level to have people able to engage with students directly to get answers on NSFAS funding. This was discussed during the period NSFAS was under administration. Students were not easily able to access NSFAS information on campuses. In the last two years, NSFAS has strengthened its relationship with institutions and this has been evident by the increased levels of data exchange and student support that financial aid offices have offered to students on campus.

The debt profile is quite a complex issue because there are institutions that have different financial profiles. Most of the institutions are highly dependent on tuition fees and subsidies. Though there may be institutions that are highly dependent on tuition fees, others are dependent on NSFAS transfers and payments. DHET has engaged with the institutions and hopefully an in-depth profile of the debt will be provided and then they can devise a way forward.

On blended learning, DHET is keen on working with USAf and the Council on Higher Education (CHE) to understand better how the 2020 academic year went, how this year is going and what institutions are doing, as well as innovations and the shifts in institutions. This process will be comprehensive and will look at costs as well and the effect of adjusting to this new learning environment. Some work has already been done on student access to learning materials, which will be expanded on. There is some work ongoing in partnership with USAf on security on campuses including some of the issues raised by student leadership, especially during protests and strikes on campus.

The Chairperson indicated that the Committee was interested in learning about the impact of blended learning and student access to study materials. He gave the example of Unizulu whose academic staff were involved in the delivery of their students' learning material. This was a good initiative that was proven to be effective. The Committee was eager to learn how other institutions were able to deliver on this.

Deputy Minister comments
Mr Buti Manamela, Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, emphasized the engagement with the South African Union of Students. The Department is aware that some of the institutions have been able to resolve at least part of the challenges they were confronted with. Hopefully, out of the Ministry meeting with SAUS we should resolve some of the matters raised.

The Ministry appreciates the role that the Committee has played.

Chairperson closing remarks
The Chairperson thanked all stakeholders for making time to have the discussion. It was fruitful and there is now a clearer understanding on the challenges and some solutions have been made. The Committee understands the difficulties that the missing middle students are facing. There is a need for a national plan to address the students that fall outside the NSFAS threshold. The Committee welcomes the process undertaken by the Ministry to understand the depth of the matter to present to Cabinet. After the Cabinet engagement in June, the Committee would like to engage with the Department on its outcome.

Student debt now sits at about R14 billion and it keeps coming up. The Committee welcomes the efforts of the Ministry to try and profile this debt. It is through this work that we will be able to determine to what extent government intervention was required. The fiscus was already over-strained and there is really no funding available to wipe out this debt.

The Committee congratulated the Wits SRC for managing to raise money to assist in clearing the historic debt at Wits University to allow students to register. The Committee encouraged the Wits management to continue engaging and working together with the SRC. There seems to be a point of divergence on the suspensions of the SRC members at Wits University.

The Ministerial Task Team has concluded its work on the design functionality of NSFAS. The Committee would like to get some engagement on that report. The efficiency of NSFAS must be improved to execute its mandate. There is a whole host of issues the Committee has discussed with NSFAS. The Committee has indicated that it will support the new NSFAS leadership to take the performance to the next level.

The Committee welcomed the suggestion to receive a briefing on the Herer Commission Report.

The Chairperson noted the Minister's request about the national shutdown and this will be discussed between the Ministry and SAUS. There is also a call by students to ask the police to refrain from using rubber bullets during student protests. This will be taken up with the Portfolio Committee on Police. The Chairperson of the Police Portfolio Committee has spoken out about this and the Committee supports her. This Committee will initiate an engagement with that Committee.

The protests were properly managed by the student leadership but they should be encouraged to remain that way. Let us not allow any other person to come and invoke violence. If that is allowed it will de-legitimise the right course that the students are embarking on.

The continued under-funding of post-school education is problematic. This under-funding is R26 billion and we need to have our voice about that.

All stakeholders are encouraged to continue to engage at their respective levels.

Cape Peninsula University of Technology matter
The Chairperson said CPUT Council and Management are not present so we cannot continue. CPUT had written to the Committee indicating that it would not be able to attend the meeting. There are significant problems in that institution and it does not seem to want to be held to account. The relationship between management and students continues to be challenging. There was a joint submission by the worker unions. At the centre of all the challenges in that in that institution is the Vice Chancellor. He seems not to be helpful. The Committee has requested in the past to engage with the leadership but we received excuses.

The Committee would now express its utmost concern; in fact, it is our disgust. This has been going on for too long and the university cannot be allowed to continue undermining the Portfolio Committee. The Committee will express its serious concern, but in the meantime the Committee will call upon them and initiate a process to summon the institution. Parliament is on a six week break but he believes this might need to happen during the break.

Mr Nanga Codana, CPUT SRC President, proposed the matter be attended to within the six-week parliamentary break as some of the matters need urgent attention. Six weeks would be too long.
The Chairperson welcomed the proposal and the Committee will make the necessary application to have the meeting approved fur during recess. We cannot have a situation where people refuse to be held accountable.

It is pretty obvious what the problem is and the Vice Chancellor must get the message clearly that that institution does not belong to him and it is not his personal fiefdom.

The Committee resolved to get the university subpoenaed during the recess period.

The outstanding Committee minutes of 16 and 17 March 2021 were considered and adopted.

The meeting was adjourned.


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