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S. African universities feeling the pinch – HESA

University fees will continue to rise if government subsidies to institutions of higher learning are not improved.

Jeffrey Mabelebele, acting chief executive of Higher Education South Africa (HESA), told the portfolio committee on higher education that most universities were in a “precarious financial position” because government subsidies or “block grants” to such institutions have been declining over the last 10 years.

HESA, which was set up in 2005, is a statutory body that lobbies for the interests of the leadership of more than 23 universities. The “block grants” are used by universities to stay afloat by financing the payment of staff salaries and research activities. Mabelebele told MPs that dropping government grants were the main reasons behind skyrocketing fees at institutions of higher learning.

He cautioned that university fees would keep climbing if the situation was not remedied soon. “If the universities have to sustain themselves and sustain the academic project itself, we are likely to see that increase in terms of student fees. There’s no doubt about that,” Mabelebele said.

He said the removal of students with outstanding fees from lecture rooms would also remain a permanent feature should a solution to the financial crunch facing universities not be found. “We call on government to increase the level of funding otherwise universities will be forced, if they are to survive in this current market, to increase tuition fees.

“And financial exclusion will remain a permanent feature of our academic landscape. There’s no way universities will survive given the level of funding they receive,” Mabelebele said. His assertion comes against a backdrop of violent protests by students at several universities throughout the country. They are up in arms over hikes in tuition fees.

Students at the University of Kwazulu-Natal’s Westville campus embarked on a violent demonstration on Tuesday, while similar scenes also played themselves out at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town last month. Mabelebele said another problem was that the private sector was also reducing its donations to universities due to a biting economic climate.

Russel Botman, a member of the Hesa executive council, said that it was even worse for universities that did not have strong ties with the business sector. “We are concerned about universities that do not have strong ties with business and the private sector. These suffer the most in this process. They suffer because they can’t grow the third (revenue) stream,” Botman said.

But the chief executive of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), Nkosinathi Khena, said his agency had set aside more than R3,6billion to fund more than a 155000 students at universities in the coming financial year, beginning in April. Khena said a further R1,7billion would also be channeled to help more than 255000 students advance their studies at colleges for further education and training.

He said the NSFAS would ensure that the funds allocated to universities would be used for what they had been intended for. “The money that we give to universities is not for the universities to run their operations. It is for the benefit of the students,” Khena said.

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