Minister and DHET on state of readiness for 2024

Higher Education, Science and Innovation

08 December 2023
Chairperson: Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC)
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Meeting Summary


The Portfolio Committee was briefed by the Minister and Department of Higher Education and Training on the state of readiness for the 2024 academic year. This meeting concluded the series of meetings held with stakeholders across the sector.

The Minister of Higher Education and Training updated the Committee on developments and achievements in the 2023 academic year. This included the comprehensive student funding model and the turnaround made by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). over the past year. Concerns were raised on the large budget cuts cross the sector and how this would impact the already overburdened student debt within universities, and reduce the capacity of the state to meet the high volume of demand.

The Director General spoke of ongoing engagements with stakeholders such as Universities South Africa (USAF) and NSFAS to ensure a better working relationships. Challenges that the Department is concerned about going into 2024 include the national shortage in student accommodation, the slow progress of NSFAS to accredit more accommodation, and delayed finding outcomes by NSFAS negatively impacting registration.

Committee members raised concerns on reported incidents of corruption and fraud, the mitigation strategies in place to avoid protests at the start of 2024 which would negatively impact registration, and the impact of budget cuts in the sector. The Director General reassured the Committee that the Department had a strong working relationship with the police and the Hawks to ensure that fraud, corruption and protest action is swiftly responded to. The Committee received assurance that the Department was in negotiations with National Treasury to limit the budget cuts and discuss alternative strategies.

Meeting report

The Chairperson clarified that the Committee had been running a series of stakeholder meetings over the past few weeks to find out their state of readiness for the 2024 academic year. Today would finalise the series of meetings with a briefing by the Minister and welcomed the members of the Committee to the meeting and welcomed members from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET).

Noting the presence of the Minister of Higher Education and Training, the Chairperson asked him to make opening remarks and present the Department delegation.

Minister’s input
Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, clarified that he would be leaving the meeting early as the President had requested his presence in a Cabinet meeting. That meeting would similarly hear from him on the state of readiness of the Department, as well as the most recent update on NSFAS.

Minister Nzimande acknowledged the work done by the Portfolio Committee throughout the year. Some Department achievements included that, despite disagreements with direct payment service providers, NSFAS was able to continue to provide students with accommodation, food, book allowances, and tuition fees. NSFAS remains one of the largest achievements developed since 1994 and benchmarking exercises have proven that it presented a progressive model in comparison to other states that offer free higher education. Minister Nzimande also acknowledged the accountability adopted by stakeholders across the sector.

The Minister acknowledged the opening of the 35th trade test centre which was the first to be introduced into the township of Soweto. This has shown significant growth in the trade training sector. He also emphasised the building of ICT infrastructure in colleges and learning centres across South Africa, acknowledging that all university campuses are able to offer internet usage and computer labs.

2023 has seen the development of a Comprehensive Funding Model as well as a framework in alignment with the National Development Plan (NDP) that would increase the capacity of higher education and training centres to meet the high demand of students in South Africa. This plan would be presented to Cabinet in the New Year to be adopted as a seven year plan. The next phase of the Comprehensive Student Funding Model has been adopted by Cabinet which aims to source funding focused on supporting the 'missing middle' as well as extending to the needs of postgraduate students. The Minister acknowledged that national government’s scholarships and bursaries do not represent all the funding available in the sector. He noted the need for various municipalities and regions that offer scholarships to make all the available resources available on a centralised platform. This must also extend to bursaries and scholarships offered by the private sector.

A Comprehensive Funding Model would also be required to note issues collectively and not in isolation. Should NSFAS receive budget cuts, this model would be required to ensure that other sectors would be able to absorb these students. Further, many high school students do not pass with the required matric marks to be allowed a place within a higher education institution. The training colleges and other institutions must be able to absorb these students and the funding model must, too, reflect the relevant demands.

In planning ahead for the 2024 academic year, DHET has taken into account the need to make more accommodation available and source alternative solutions to fund the missing middle. The Department has been in consultation with Universities South Africa (USAF) and NSFAS to facilitate a better working relationship between these two stakeholders. A steering Committee has been formed with universities, NSFAS, members of the Department, student leaders and the central applications scheme directorate in order to closely monitor the unfolding of registration processes in universities across South Africa. DHET will also be meeting with the registrars from all the universities early in January 2024 to understand their readiness for the registration process. The Minister, lastly, confirmed that a meeting would be occurring between the various security officers at universities to understand their readiness in the case of protests at the start of the year.

Minister Nzimande questioned the Committee on the necessity of how frequently his Ministry was called to account before the Portfolio Committee, acknowledging the importance of accountability and engagement. He commented that he was not allowed sufficient time between these stakeholder meetings to be briefed on their concerns and provide the necessary responses to the Portfolio Committee.

The Chairperson allowed Members to ask questions before the Minister had to leave.

Ms C King (DA) commented on the Comprehensive Funding Model. She asked if the model was a copy of the presentation given by herself on the funding model. She found that the Minister’s input was particularly similar to her own presentation given to the Department.

The Chairperson responded to comment made by the Minister on the frequency the Ministry was called to account to the Committee. The Committee meetings were scheduled as per the guidelines by the parliamentary programme. Should the Minister and the Department itself find this arrangement unsatisfactory and that deadlines cannot realistically be achieved, then the Minister should advise Parliament's Chair of Chairs about this.

Mr Shikwambana (EFF) commented that the Minister should not advise the Committee on the way meetings are run. He noted that recalling staff members from the Committee meeting and calling entities to the meetings on behalf of the Committee was inappropriate. The Committee and the committee guidelines police the way the Committee is run.

The Minister expressed his confusion about whether the Comprehensive Funding Model was previously presented by the DA, the Portfolio Committee or Ms King herself. Nonetheless, he expressed his gratitude that the Comprehensive Funding Model was being well-received by the Committee.

In response to Mr Shikwambana, Minister Nzimande said that he had no intention of policing the operations of the Committee. He had expressed concerns so as to remain transparent with the Committee about the harsh deadlines and responsibilities the Minister’s staff members were facing outside of the Committee’s requests for meetings. None of the comments and critiques made by the Minister were raised adversarially.

The Chairperson asked the Director General to present on behalf of the Department.

DHET on 2024 Readiness Plan
Director General, Mr Nkosinathi Sishi, recognised the words shared by Minister Nzimande and also acknowledged the presence of Deputy Minister Buti Manamela, both of whom had contributed to the progress of the Department over the 2023 academic year.

He foregrounded the presentation with two key issues that would play a large role. The first was the ongoing issue of NSFAS and the second being stakeholder relations.

Mr Sishi provided a reflection on the 2023 academic year before providing members of the Committee with an overview of the registration and enrollment plans for 2024, the accommodation provisions, and the potential challenges that remain with the Department:
- A monitoring tool which was employed during the 2023 registration period to monitor activity on the ground will be once again employed in 2024.
- A steering committee was created for registration with members from the Central Application Service (CAS) directorate, universities, NSFAS, the Department and student leaders.
- A meeting will be held with Registrars to discuss readiness of universities on 5 January 2024.
- A meeting will be held with security managers from universities on 4 January 2024.
- Enrollment plans have been handed in to DHET by the universities, which still may be subject to change following the confirmation of National Treasury’s finalised budget cuts.

Mr Sishi also confirmed that the Comprehensive Student Funding Model has been tabled and approved by Cabinet. This will be shared as necessary with stakeholders as time proceeds. The Director General outlined the areas still considered as hotspots by DHET:
- Slow progress in accrediting accommodation
- NSFAS finalising applications and issuing funding decisions
- Direct payments
- Finalisation of application appeals
- Application data has not yet been received from UniZulu, WSU and MUT and eight universities have indicated shortages in accommodation
- Student debt remains at +R16.5 billion

On the ongoing problems presented by NSFAS, it experienced a shortfall after the 2023 academic year of R1.1 billion. Considering the 10% budget cut for the 2024 academic year it is projected to be R5.5 billion.

The Director General provided an overview of the number of applications and expected enrolled students for the 2024 academic year in TVET colleges. This summary included a reference to the newly introduced programmes that will be funded ministerially.

He confirmed that meetings will be held with Student Representative Councils to further manage the progress of funding and registration throughout the start of the 2024 academic year.

At TVET colleges efforts have been made to reach the State of the Nation Address target of 20 000 students receiving placements in workplaces after completing their studies. A total of 8 962 students have been placed, but DHET will meet with SETA CEOs to expedite this process.

Mr Sishi presented the state of readiness of community colleges for the 2024 academic year. The following points were highlighted as current concerns for DHET:
- The enrollment figures between 2021 and 2022 displayed a sharp decrease.
- Courier companies contracted by DHET to deliver examination papers had delays in November 2023.
- Instability due to the absence of permanently contracted principals at the Limpopo and Gauteng Community Colleges.
- Instability due to the absence of an approved organogram for college management and human resource management.

The Director General apologised for his lack of depth due to time, but assured the Committee that he would provide deeper insight into the developments in the sector in response to questions raised in the remainder of the meeting.

Ms King expressed her concern about where DHET intends to source alternative funding to cover the NSFAS shortfall. In the past it was sourced from university subsidies, TVET college infrastructure grants and the National Skills Fund. Considering the budget cuts and shortfalls in university subsidies as well as TVET college grants, will this be sourced entirely from the National Skills Fund? Will this result in fewer students being funded in the 2024 academic year?

Ms King requested clarity on the increases in accommodation and tuition fees, which was not mentioned. Large increases would only further burden the universities with increased debt. Those owing debt to the universities are also facing the possibility of not being allowed to graduate. How does DHET plan to respond to this?

Newspapers reported that there was an approximate R13 billion cut in funding for Higher Education. Can the Director General provide the Committee with a breakdown of this budget cut? What sectors will be directly affected by this?

Ms K Khaukhau (DA) raised concern on the difficulty the Committee is facing when DHET chooses to deny urgent issues brought to them. The higher education sector is burdened with a shortage of accommodation. The Committee had been in communication with NSFAS to accredit accommodation quicker. In the face of this urgent issue, it seems as if DHET continues to drag its feet. She asked what strategies are in place to ensure all NSFAS students have safe accredited accommodation to move into at the start of the 2024 academic year.

Ms Khaukhau raised the previously discussed concern on the curriculum of university and TVET colleges and the modifications that were intended to be implemented. Can the Committee be sure that in 2024 students will be attending courses where the teaching material is up to standard, and takes into account the current demands in the labour market. Have these courses been appropriately brought up to date?

Mr S Ngcobo (DA) noted that USAF had raised concerns on the late offering of applications. This negatively affects the ability of students to register on time. What mitigation strategies has DHET put in place with NSFAS to ensure that the list of funded students is released on time for these students to meet registration deadlines?

Ms D Sibiya (ANC) thanked Mr Sishi for providing the Committee with a detailed overview of the DHET throughout 2023 and in preparation for the 2024 academic year. The presentation noted that UniZulu, WSU, and MUT had not provided DHET with up-to-date application data. Have these universities provided DHET with valid reasons for this?

Ms Sibiya noted that only nine universities have agreed to accept late applications and walk-ins. Eight universities have indicated a shortage in university housing and accommodation. Can the Committee be provided with the names of these universities?

Ms J Mananiso (ANC) welcomed the DG's presentation as well as the work done by the Minister. She expressed her excitement of the newly introduced mitigation plan and other measures that show the sector’s readiness for the start of the new academic year. Lastly, she showed her support for the new phase of the Comprehensive Student Funding Model. This showed the dedication of the government to ensure that all people in South Africa should have access to higher education. She requested that a list of universities that remain unstable and require attention and support going into the new year. These high risk universities should be closely monitored throughout the new year by the Committee.

Ms Mananiso applauded DHET’s work to implement a framework for persons with disabilities, especially at TVET colleges. The work done to include this group must continue throughout the year to ensure a conducive learning environment for those with specific needs.

The efforts to collate municipal and private bursaries and scholarships onto a single accessible platform was welcomed by the Committee. This project must continue swiftly throughout the festive season so as to become available to students at the start of 2024.

Ms Mananiso requested that the Committee be provided with a document in writing outlining the safety and security plan as discussed in the upcoming meeting with security officers in the new year. The Committee would appreciate being brought into confidence on the mitigating measures in place to avoid campus-wide protests that aim to destabilise the registration process at the start of the 2024 academic year.

On community colleges, Ms Maniniso asked if developments have been made to ensure that CETs engage in community centres, churches and other local community gatherings to increase the number of applicants and enrollments in community colleges in 2024. This was a plan that was discussed earlier in 2023.

Ms Maniniso raised concerns on the state of gender-based violence and femicide at university camuses across South Africa. Has there been a plan put in place to introduce awareness programmes at the start of the academic year to ensure that DHET remains proactive as opposed to reactive as the issue continues to rage across South Africa.

Mr Shikwambana thanked the Director General for availing himself. He noted the shortage in accommodation across institutions of higher learning in South Africa. This shortage has forced students to find alternative accommodation outside of the premises of the institution and in areas and conditions that are not conducive to learning. The individual cases have been noted within the University of the Free State Qwaqwa campus where 105 students have been staying in accommodation that was not accredited despite being previously funded, and they have found themselves without funding in 2023. Mr Shikwambana felt that DHET was not taking this issue seriously…[internet connectivity lost].

Mr T Letsie (ANC) greeted the members from DHET and the Committee that had availed themselves for this meeting. He made further comments on the large looming issue of student accommodation and the corruption that has occurred within the sector. He noted that in the past accommodation was accredited by universities directly. In previous attempts to give NSFAS direct control over the accreditation process the progress was too slow and rejected. Their work now in accrediting accommodation has been noted now by all members of the committee as being hindered by slow progress. The unsatisfactory standard of university accreditation processes was identified and he expressed his gratitude that members of the Committee as well as members of DHET were finally noting this issue.

In 2021, VUT was flagged as billing NSFAS for a specific number of students residing within their own on-campus accommodation. The Portfolio Committee had further investigated this and identified that this university residence did not exist and NSFAS was being incorrectly billed. These corrupt issues can only be improved through NSFAS-led accreditation processes.

Mr Letsie raised concerns on the activity of political parties at universities attempting to dominate protests and be in limelight amidst the 2024 election campaigns. Have there been mitigation plans put in place to ensure that the unruly eruption of political activity does not occur and does not hinder registration and academic work. DHET must work closely with security officers in preparation for this. The infrastructure at these universities must be safeguarded. This must, too, extend to meetings with other stakeholders such as the South African Police Service to ensure those planning these disruptions are arrested and held accountable.

Doubts were shared that the appropriate communication between USAF and DHET has taken place. There is a need for USAF to be briefed on how not to contribute to university instability at the start of the 2024 academic year. Drawing from the meeting held by the Portfolio Committee on 29 November 2023 with USAF and NSFAS, Mr Letsie voiced his concerns that upon the releasing of university results in 2024, students would not be aware if they would receive funding for the following year. He suggested that this should be communicated as early as these results are released, and NSFAS and USAF could then exclusively deal with new students in January 2024.

The Chairperson thanked Mr Letsie for his contribution. She noted that 2023 was a year full of trials and tribulations for the sector. The state of the sector should move away from troubleshooting. NSFAS largely initiated the constant need for troubleshooting and problem solving. She thanked the Director General for his openness and honesty which was appreciated. This openness and honesty should remain as Mr Sishi answers the questions raised by the Committee.

The Chairperson noted that the Committee should realistically foresee the possibility that universities will exist within some state of instability. Amongst this, councils must be allowed to make executive decisions to restore stability and must be made aware of the pending issues that may arise.

Director General response
Mr Sishi noted the role of departments to report to Parliament to be held accountable. The presentation was presented in such a way that the honest issues and shortfalls of DHET and the sector at large were put forward, although there are some plans in place, such as that presented by the Minister at the start of the meeting.

The plan put forward on the Comprehensive Funding Model takes into account the 'missing middle' which would serve to unite the various parties requiring assistance in funding their university education. Much focus has been placed on the lower and working classes, and this would allow an extension to the middle class.

The Ministerial Commission of Inquiry put forward a report stating that the organisational culture of NSFAS was not aligned to its mandate. Strategic interventions were required to change this organisational culture, and further ensure that the guidelines, plans and policies were aligned to the role that NSFAS was intended to play. The scale of NSFAS and the amount of money that they handle is so large, yet their facilities in metro areas are far below the numbers of other banking companies and branches in South Africa. NSFAS is constantly trying to change in order to fit the structure of a bursary scheme, as opposed to its former structure as a loan bank for students. Mr Sishi assured the Committee that DHET had no intention of shying away from the issues within the sector and those raised by the Committee members.

Mr Sishi confirmed that he has been in constant communication with National Treasury to agree upon estimated figures of annual expenditure to manage future budget cuts. The outline of the 6% cut breakdown included R 9 billion being taken from NSFAS, university capacity development programmes, and community education and training. The Department has further sent appeals back to the National Treasury to protect certain sectors from cuts that would no longer allow for the effective operation of these sectors. The correspondence with Treasury has been successful thus far and the cut has been reduced from 10% to between 6 and 7%.

Mr Sishi acknowledged the flood of late applications that universities will receive after the release of matric results. This must still be taken into account by DHET and a strategy must be put in place. The presentation provided by DHET has, admittedly, offered no thorough indication of how this will be dealt with.

He noted the accuracy with which Ms Khaukhau was able to interpret the role that DHET must play, and the importance and protection of the curriculum. The Department is currently working on an array of interventions, including a new highly articulated science and innovation system. This curriculum will be more aligned to the values outlined by the White Paper. Other issues continue to impact the curriculum such as internationalisation, collaboration, and modernisation.

Mr Sishi agreed with Ms Khaukhau on the implications of slow accreditation. The Department will continue to work with NSFAS on developing clear guidelines on the accreditation process. Mr Letsie correctly identified that universities do not exist without their own flaws, and DHET is confident in the working relationship between NSFAS and DHET. Facilitating the working relationship between USAF and NSFAS will further ensure that these processes can unfold successfully.

Mr Sishi agreed that some universities are not providing accurate and up-to-date information on the number of applications received. This was as a result of system issues within these universities. These systems were not aligned to the PSET system as outlined by the auditor. As long as this persists, there will be issues with the collection of data.

Ms Mananiso has provided the Director General with oversight and advice. Mitigation strategies to avoid double dipping have been advanced and DHET will continue to consult new statistics to judge the results of these upgrades.

Mr Sishi disagreed with the comments by Mr Shikwambana, saying that DHET has taken these concerns very seriously throughout the year and as it prepares for 2024. He had only heard part of what was said by Mr Shikwambana due to the persistence of his connectivity issues. DHET would continue to create new strategies as the problem reveals itself.

Mr Sishi acknowledged the points made by Mr Letsie including the accusations of corruption as well as the importance of the protection of infrastructure. DHET has been receiving support from the Hawks in investigating corruption accusations such as at VUT and the University of Fort Hare. DHET relies on a strong working relationship between the law enforcement agencies and itself and this relationship is maintained as the start of the 2024 academic year looms nearer.

Mr Sishi exclaimed that USAF has been guided in the past by outstanding leaders. It is only with the most recent change of leadership that DHET has noted the difficulties arising from this stakeholder. DHET would continue to support this new leadership as they continue to try their best to troubleshoot the current issues. The Department expects from them to perhaps differ in certain opinions, but not stray from the mandate given to them.

Lastly, Mr Sishi assured the Committee as well as members of the public of his commitment to ensuring the success of higher education. DHET members work hard to ensure that each year progress is made. NSFAS communication has been strengthened, and a communication plan is in the pipeline for DHET. The Director General encouraged the Committee to continue to work closely with DHET, linked together by their passion to see the growth of the higher education and training sector.

Ms King followed up by asking about the commitment to accredit medical specialists at Frere Hospital and Livingstone Hospital. It has been reported to Ms King that issues have been arising after some students have been in two years of service but have been unable to be accredited for specialised medical services.

The Director General noted that this was not an isolated problem and other TVET colleges have been facing similar issues. The Department has ventured to ensure that a joint structure exists between the Department of Health and DHET. This particular report has not been received by Mr Sishi, but he noted that it would be handled with urgency when it comes into his possession. The Department will continue to work closely with the Department of Health to ensure these problems do not arise in future.

The Chairperson recounted the work done by the Portfolio Committee and expressed her hope that they would again be provided with sufficient time to perform oversight visits. She commended the Department that at every oversight visit DHET officials were in attendance, citing the effectiveness that this had on troubleshooting issues as they arose on the ground. In 2024 the Committee hopes to have Department representation at these oversight visits for the two stakeholders to have a strong united front and work together closely to solve arising issues. Conversations in the Committee should not be taking place without assurance that these issues will be taken further into action.

The Chairperson noted the return of the Minister to the meeting. She assured him that the Director General had been effective at answering all the concerns of Members but she allowed him the space to make closing remarks.

Minister’s closing remarks
The Minister started by reassuring the Committee that he had every intention to account regularly to the Portfolio Committee, and thanked them for their robust engagement throughout the year. Despite the historical, political and personal differences the various members of stakeholders within the sector are faced with, members within the sector are able to put the needs and responsibilities they owe to the sector above this and work as a team.

Minister Nzimande warned the Committee that there would be a high volume of work awaiting the Committee upon their return in the new year, and that they take this time to rest and enjoy themselves ahead of this.

The Chairperson thanked the Minister and the Department for always availing themselves to account to the Committee. Further thanks were made to all the researchers and administrative staff members who contribute to the continued success of these engagements. She thanked Committee members for being dedicated to the cause throughout the year and wished them all a happy festive season.

The minutes from 17, 22 and 29 November were adopted before the close of the final Committee meeting for 2023.


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