Cape Town - While Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has rejected calls for free education for all, he has vowed to present a "compelling case" for poor students to get a better deal, writes Chris Bathembu.
Nzimande is, in the light of the review committee report on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), pushing for the state to consider using the scheme as a basis to introduce free undergraduate education for needy students.
The NSFAS report, which has been compiled by a panel led by Professor Marcus Balintulo, has recommended radical changes in the way the scheme operates and calls for changes to policy regulations including the distribution formula for the allocation of financial aid to institutions.
But even Nzimande is aware that such changes may take a little longer to yield the desired results and some of the committee's recommendations may even be rejected by Cabinet.
With Cabinet expected to make a decision on the matter by August, Nzimande has vowed to make a case for his strife for free education for financially needy and academically deserving students.
Nzimande told BuaNews: "We think that this report... all those stakeholders should actually study it closer and respond to it and also of course take into account that government does have limited amounts of funds but (we need to see) where we can start together.
"We are not starting from scratch, NSFAS has already supported hundreds of thousands of students, but how do we then strengthen it and be able to move closer to the goal of free higher education at least to undergraduate level for poor students."
Although the minister pointed out that a number of prospective students who require NSFAS to further their education were from families where there was - in some instances - no bread winners, Balintuli was not shy to note that during its work, the committee was faced with the dilemma of having to separate between the responsibility of the state and that of parents.
"It's a matter that we really struggled with in trying to determine what is the responsibility of the state and the expected family contribution because whatever we had to recommend had to touch on the review of the founding formula of NSFAS," he said.
But the matter was up Nzimande's alley - at least in principle. "It's nice to talk about parental responsibility when you can afford (to pay).The reality is that most students cannot afford," he said.
For what he calls "the missing middle", Nzimande wants NSFAS to review the current policy that allows the scheme to assist only students whose household income is less than R122 000 per annum. He argues that there are many parents who earn up to R160 000 per annum but cannot afford to send their children to institutions of higher learning.
"The scheme does not take into account that it may happen that we are earning R150 000 but we have got two kids at university and you will still not qualify. So those are the things the report is helping us to properly grasp and understand".
The panel also suggested that the race-based model for allocating funds be replaced by a class-based model using solely socio-economic criteria, while acknowledging the continuing overlap between race and class in post-apartheid South Africa.
While many have suggested there might be a link between financial difficulties and the recurrent violent protests at universities, Nzimande said reasons for the protests are varied.
"What we've found for instance this year, because we have set up a registration task team just to oversee what is happening, is that sometimes its just lack of proper communication amongst the stakeholders and that includes management."
Student bodies in varsity campuses nationwide have recently protested against financial exclusion.
Nzimande said the task team had identified weaknesses in the administrative system where students in some institutions get thrown out erroneously while others get accepted.
"So those are some of the things that cause a problem at the beginning of the year but that does not lead to denying the fact that one of the biggest challenges is financial exclusion on the grounds that some students cannot afford to pay and NSFAS has not been able to reach all of them," he added.
While Nzimande has been clearly sympathetic to the call for free education since assuming the ministry in May last year, he has been equally clear in his message that only financially needy and academically deserving students should be considered if and when a free education system finally emerges. For now he doesn't want to "pre-empt" the discussions at Cabinet and all he has vowed to do is present a "compelling case".