In a Press Conference yesterday Finance Minister, Malusi Gigaba broke the news that free higher education will not be rolled out over the promised five years, but over eight. Just two weeks ago Higher Education Minister, Hlengiwe Mkhize, said free education would be phased in over five years. It is time that the two ministers spoke to one another about this.
Even eight years seems an inordinately short time for him to find the roughly R40bn to R50bn per annum that will be required once students in all years are funded. He himself acknowledged that our national budget is inadequate even without this requirement. So which other Departments will this money be taken from? Social Development? Basic Education? Human Settlements?
With registration ongoing during January, students and their parents are not sure what exactly is happening.
Minister Gigaba also cast further doubt on the ANC's grasp of the issues when he said that "the Government had now established how much free higher education would cost", but at the same time that "nobody can be very certain about the actual quantum of the figures required for the funding of the system". He admitted that there "was still a lot of uncertainty" including how many students would actually need financial assistance. Students must be wondering what on earth all of this means.
And on Sunday we suddenly heard that the Ministry will be requiring students to do 80 hours community service a year and participating in the economy after studies have been completed, as a condition of the free education.
This is a serious matter for students. A student who registers this year for a free first year will do so on the expectation that his or her second and third year will be funded. But the Minister clearly has doubts about this. And will community service and 'participating in the economy", whatever that may mean, be required or not?
Adding fuel to this fire are opportunists like the EFF who are inciting violence by calling for walk-in registrations, and blaming Universities and Colleges when they cannot provide places for students once they are full. Minister Mkhize has not helped by calling upon Colleges to "be creative" in admitting extra students. Is she totally unaware of how enrolment planning in her Department actually works? Between her populism and the EFF's opportunism, educational institutions are being hung out to dry.
We have called on Parliament to address this crisis urgently, but our call has been rejected.
Whoever delivers the State of Nation Address must clearly state how, when and even whether the plan for free education will come to fruition. When Cyril Ramaphosa becomes President will he stretch the number of years it will take to ten? Or even fifteen?
Like all ANC policies, this plan is incoherent and is causing confusion and anxiety among the country's youth.
The DA has long held that free education for the poor is possible, that a tiered system of student funding would be feasible and that this needs careful planning in advance. The effects of the reckless Zuma announcement will affect our educational system for a long time to come, and may still have consequences we cannot yet predict. But they will be serious.
Belinda Bozzoli MP
DA Shadow Minister of Higher Education and Training