The commission of inquiry into higher education fees, established by President Jacob Zuma, has its sights on finding a long-term solution, not the current turbulence rocking the sector, Judge Jonathan Arthur Heher said on Wednesday.
“One of the things the [Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande] made clear is that this commission was set up to achieve a long-term goal. It wasn’t empowered or asked to investigate issues of immediate importance,” chairperson of the inquiry Heher told reporters in Pretoria.
Heher said government has reserved to itself the power to address the current challenges relating to fees for tertiary education.
“The minister emphasised that the commission is looking for a long-term solution,” said Heher.
He said his inquiry was, however, still “only at a preliminary stage”.
“Because the goal [of the Heher-led inquiry] is a long-term one, the terms of our commission have been so structured that the real question is only to be answered towards the last stages of this commission. The question is to say, ‘is free education feasible?’ The first set of the inquiry was introductory, and was designed to deal with ideological issues, issues of principles and an understanding of the real problems that we’re facing,” said Heher.
“What we have been very much interested in hearing from those who have participated, is what their view is on fee-free education. If so, what should fee-free education extend to. I must say all the institutions have participated freely and the students lesser.”
Heher said while his commission was not empowered to decide on the structure of education in South Africa, participants so far have urged the inquiry to probe, in a financing context, the possibility of restructuring the college and the university system.
“The point is made that at the present stage we have a pyramidal structure which puts the universities at the bottom, therefore with a much broader base of students, and the TVET colleges at the top, therefore with a limited point beyond which their students cannot extend. Almost everybody who knows anything about education has said to us, that will not work and isn’t in the best interests of the country,” said Heher.
He said indications so far were that the college system needed to be broadened to enable it to provide fundamental practical skills critically required by the South African economy. He said such an agreement would not mean “relegating the university education but to transfer the university component to the top of the pyramid, where there will be fewer but high-skilled” individuals.
Calls for free higher education in South Africa have been rekindled recently, with violence and disruption of classes at several universities.
On Monday, Nzimande announced that tertiary education institutions in South Africa are permitted to individually determine the level of 2017 fees increase that their institutions require.
Nzimande, however, said government recommends that the fees increments should not go above 8%.
Last year a number of university campuses were shut down after the #FeesMustFall campaign gained momentum and even saw students storm parliament and the Union Buildings. This led Zuma to announce a no-fee hike for the 2016 academic year.
– African News Agency (ANA)