The fees crisis and financial shortfall in tertiary education were only briefly mentioned in the State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Thursday. This comes despite the anticipation of many students, faculty and analysts who hoped that President Jacob Zuma would outline the details of how the financial shortfall will be dealt with.
“Government has responded to the financial shortfall arising from the zero per cent university fee increase, as agreed in meeting with students and vice-chancellors last year,” said Zuma during the 2016 SONA. Zuma postponed discussing the details and rather referred to the budget speech later this month. “The minister of finance will provide the details of education shortfall funding in the budget speech,” said Zuma.
In a statement by Witwatersrand University, the university expressed their surprise that the issues relating to student access and finance were not raised during the speech. “We are hopeful that these matters will be dealt with in detail in the upcoming budget speech,” according to the statement.
Prof Ruksana Osman, the dean of humanities at Wits, expressed her concern over the lack of details discussed by the president. “The issue was not addressed sufficiently because it lacked in finer details around the big questions on how the shortfall with work, for who and under what conditions,” said Osman.
She also raised concerns over the lack of acknowledgement of the far reaching consequences of the fees crisis. “The speech was measured and did not acknowledge the magnitude of the financial crisis and the socio economic impact on the country as a whole,” said Osman.
Many now look towards the budget speech on Feb 24 to tackle the issues that Zuma deferred to the recently appointed Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan.
“My expectations are not of dramatic moves at this point – perhaps a budget raided here or there to help universities meet immediate shortfalls but probably not much more than that,” said Prof Daryl Glaser the head of department of Political Studies at Wits University.
The president added that a Judicial Commission of Inquiry was appointed into higher education and urged all stakeholders to cooperate. However, some think that the government may not be able to take on the financial burden of moving towards free education after Zuma’s speech focused on the economic situation and the tough time ahead for the country.
“This enables the executive to delay action in financially straitened times, but of course it’ll be necessary to see what the commission finds,” said Glaser.
Zuma announced that fees would not increase at tertiary institutions last year. This came after university students across the country embarked on the #FeesMustFall protests, demanding a zero percent fees increase, curriculum transformation, an end to outsourcing and a commitment toward free tertiary education.