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Berita Nasional - Internasional

#FreeEducation: Defusing free varsity time bomb

Five-year phase-in announcement reveals real state of affairs.

The Treasury, the department of higher education and universities are all in a desperate race to disarm Jacob Zuma’s ticking time bomb of free tertiary education for all.

The reality dawned this week that there is no money in current government budgets to provide free education for all the students who would qualify.

Higher Education Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize admitted that this week by saying the free system would only be phased in over a five-year period. She said Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba had assured the inter-ministerial committee responsible for the plan to leave the “nitty-gritty” details to him. But Treasury said it is still looking for the money.

Finance department spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete said: “There’s going to be sacrifices from government to fund this.”

The announcement of a phased-in system is likely to inflame tensions among students further and may cause chaos during registration at public universities this month. The National Treasury allocated R76.7 billion to higher education for the year through March 2018. It estimates this will increase by an average of 8.2% in each of the following three years, it said in October’s mid-term budget.

South Africa will increase subsidies to universities to 1% of gross domestic product from 0.7% now over the next five years, according to Zuma’s December 16 statement. The National Treasury will outline how the government will fund free higher education “in a fiscally sustainable manner” in the February 21 budget, Gigaba said.

Former National Treasury deputy director-general of the budget office Michael Sachs said this week he did not want to respond to claims by the man who advised Zuma on the plan, Mukovhe Morris Masutha, that he lied about the cost of free education.

In an interview with eNCA, Masutha, who dated Zuma’s daughter, Thuthukile, claimed it would only cost R12.5 billion to fund the group qualifying for free higher education. He claimed the figure of R40 billion, suggested by Sachs, was “a lie”.

In November last year, Sachs resigned from his position after nearly a decade of service in the Treasury. At the time, Fin24 reported this was motivated by the presidency’s steamrolling of free higher education.

“Sachs didn’t necessarily oppose the idea of free education, but he wouldn’t stand for the interference in the budget process,” a source told Fin24.

News24 revealed in November that Masutha, a #FeesMustFall campaign leader, was listed as an employee of the State Security Agency when he was a student activist at Wits University.

Universities’ finances were stretched by the state’s decision to limit tuition costs in 2016. Investors are concerned the fee proposal, which ignores fiscal targets, will hasten another rating downgrade to junk for the country’s local-currency credit.

The EFF said if walk-in applicants are not let onto campuses, nobody else should be. “We don’t intend to cause anarchy, but if we are pushed, we will be left with no choice,” Phuthi Peter Keetse, the party’s student leader, said.

Azar Jammine, Econometrix chief economist, said: “There is too much pressure on the fiscus to afford the new measure. We can easily afford it if we cut out the amount of government money currently being wasted on corruption and state capture.”

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