phinda-mofokengedit The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) is battling with a R2 billion deficit, and if a fee hike is blocked, it would “prove tough” for the institution to function next year. So said UKZN vice-chancellor, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, speaking to the Daily Newson Monday on the sidelines of the Fees Commission in Durban. Van Jaarsveld said the university first needed an idea of what the state grant was going to be before it could even begin to talk about fees. He said they were still waiting to hear about the state grant, which they had to balance with the fees to ensure sustainability into the future. “There’s a need from society to look at higher education and the way that it’s funded, but in the short term, it’s going to be really tough because having a zero percent increase next year, without any form of compensation for the universities, means that we’re borrowing in the short term to pay long-term bills and that’s what it comes down to,” Van Jaarsveld said. The commission, which convened at the Moses Mabhida Stadium on Monday and continues on Tuesday, was established in January to enquire into, report on and make recommendations on the feasibility of fee-free higher education and training. Van Jaarsveld’s comments come after Thursday’s disclosure, in a parliamentary response to a question from the DA, about the parlous state of the finances of the country’s tertiary institutions The reply revealed that 16 of 26 universities countrywide would face financial distress in the 2017/18 financial year. “Specifically, the aggregate deficit across these 16 universities is projected to be 
R3.97 billion for the same financial year,” said the DA’s Professor Belinda Bozzoli, MP. “Free education is not possible currently, government just can’t afford it,” Bozzoli told the Daily News on Sunday. The 16 universities were ranked in order of deficit size, with Walter Sisulu in Mthatha having the biggest, followed by the University of Limpopo and UKZN. The University of Venda was at 16. Rhodes and the University of Fort Hare were at positions six and seven in the pyramid. “The extent of the financial distress is based on modelling conducted by the Council on Higher Education (CHE). This is most likely attributable to the protracted underfunding of our university sector for more than two decades,” Bozzoli said. Van Jaarsveld said in their engagement with the government’s financial structures it appeared that education was broadly viewed as a cost to society, rather than as an investment in the future. He said a change in thinking was needed – where tertiary education was viewed as an investment in skills required by the country to drive its economy forward. Van Jaarsveld said if the Department of Higher Education set the fee increase at zero percent, the university would have to think about getting loans and how much university staff they could carry. These were “tough” calls to make, although he would not make them without knowing what the budget was. “That’s what it comes down to, if you can’t make it financially then you have to make the tough choices that go with it. There’s no other way to get out of it,” he said. He said that those who clearly could not afford to pay for education had to be paid for by the state, the taxpayer and other mechanisms. “We clearly have to decide what’s in the best development interests of our nation and maximising the opportunity for all young people in this country irrespective of their socio-economic background.” A fee-free education based solely on government funding had dangers such as the erosion of the funding base over time, which would affect the quality of the tuition offered at universities, he said. Phinda Mofokeng, the provincial secretary of the ANC-aligned SA Students Congress, said they re-emphasised the urgency of the need for a fee-free education for the poor, who had been excluded by the system He said there was no need for a Fees Commission because the government “does not call for commissions” to inject extra funding for parastatals such as Eskom or SAA. “These companies are just given billions of rand. Another major problem is that private businesses don’t want to be part of skills development. “They don’t fund and even refuse to take students on internships. We are all shareholders in the state, but the poor must be prioritised,” Mofokeng said. He said municipalities should also exempt universities from paying rates and the rate percentage be rather redirected to fund more students. “Universities are sites of knowledge production and when they (municipalities) employ a person from a university they would be getting them free of charge, but they do not want to fund this knowledge production,” Mofokeng said. Lukhona Mnguni, a PhD student at UKZN, said that free education would ensure that society held the government accountable to improve these institutions. SOURCE: IOL Image: M&G