We all enjoy a success story. Every time a child from an underprivileged family becomes the first in the family to attend university and end up becoming globally renowned in his or her field of study, we all celebrate. We love these stories, because they remind us that a good education is a great equaliser.
Hence the student protests of the last few weeks concerned government deeply. We recall the Freedom Charter, which called for the doors of education to be opened. Since 1994 government responded to this call by allocating a large share of the budget to education.
Government has been steadfast in its resolve that poverty should never rob any South African from the chance to obtain a tertiary qualification. We have also sensed the frustration and desperation in the voices of indigent students who hope that their tertiary studies will break them out of the claws of poverty.
For this reason, President Jacob Zuma called student leaders, vice-chancellors and chairpersons of university councils to gain a first-hand account of issues that are of concern to them and which affect their capacity to perform at university.
It was truly heartening to hear from our well-articulated students. They raised a number of concerns including steep university fees, the slow transformation at campuses and the living conditions of students at universities. We also afforded time to the vice chancellors and chairpersons of university councils to learn more about their challenges.
Under the bold leadership of President Zuma, an agreement was reached that there will not be an increase in any university fees in the 2016 academic year. Government is currently working with universities to explore various options to meet this commitment.
Furthermore, the Vice-Chancellors of all the universities agreed to extend the examinations period to compensate for the time lost due to the fee protests.
Going forward, the recently established Presidential Task Team that comprises the Department of Higher Education and Training, student representatives and University Councils will address funding mechanisms of tertiary institutions. This is a critical matter, since over the past two decades government’s subsidy to universities did not keep up with the surge in students.
Once this team has concluded its work, it will report back to all relevant parties. The work of the Task Team is in line with the Constitution, which states that everyone has the right to basic and further education. The State is obliged to make it available and accessible through reasonable measures.
The consultation session between the President and representatives of the university community also agreed that government needs to lead a process that will investigate other challenges in the higher education sector. Therefore, the scope of the Presidential Task Team has been broadened to look into free education, institutional autonomy, transformation concerns, racism and so-called “black debt’’.
Furthermore, President Zuma is also exploring setting up a formal commission of inquiry to look into matters around higher education.
Government will continue its work to find solutions for the difficulties faced by students from poor households. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is in place to assist students that need financial assistance. Since its inception, this scheme has awarded approximately R50 billion in loans and bursaries to about 1.5 million students.
For the 2015/16 financial year alone, the NSFAS budget comprises R4.1 billion for university study loans and R2.2 billion for Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) college bursaries. This is supplemented by recovered funds and donor allocations, which further increases the total budget of NSFAS to R9.5 billion for the allocation of 205 000 university student loans and bursaries and 200 000 TVET college bursaries.
In addition to NSFAS, a number of national and provincial departments also provide bursaries for example to teaching, nursing, social work and post-graduate students.
The government calls on all parties to create the space for the various government processes to take their course. This dedicated team is committed to find long-term solutions to all the challenges raised during the consultation session.
We would like to wish our students all the best for their examinations. Our youth and their determination will ensure that we collectively move South Africa forward.
Faith Muthambi is the Minister of Communications