March 18, 2010

South African Students Demand Free Education

SASCO Statement on NSFAS Review Report
18 March 2010

A path-breaking NSFAS Review Report

We welcome and appreciate the strategic thrust of the NSFAS review report. Its recommendations are not only epoch-making but also path breaking, particularly, on the question of free education. Surely, we greatly appreciate the tremendous role played by the NSFAS review committee in not only synthesizing but taking into consideration numerous submissions made by the student movement. We think it is important that the report not only focuses on the funding for free education but also the administrative and legislative revitalisation of the scheme. Our organization from time immemorial has raised many of the recommendations now contained in the NSFAS review report and we feel vindicated that at last there is recognition of the centrality of these issues.

Free Education

We greatly welcome and celebrate the recommendation that government must implement free education. We view this as a victory for the student movement. We believe that this will not go unnoticed by the great majority of the South African working class that has ceaselessly called for free education for its children in order to break the cycle of poverty produced and reproduced by capitalism, pre and post-1994. Unfortunately, we believe that this acceptance of free education is not sufficient and remains largely vague. Efforts at transforming public higher education will be fruitless so long as the principle that education is a commodity that can be exchanged in the capitalist market is left unchallenged.

Student Financial Aid Models

(I) Component One

We welcome the report’s embrace that the working class and the poor should get free education through a state-subsidised grant system. This is a significant breakthrough. We have argued that income contingent loans such as NSFAS, although having a significant and positive bearing on creating access for the poor, they nonetheless create several problems

Students from the poor and working class backgrounds are subjected to debt paralysis, which greatly affects the living standards of graduates. It is on this basis that we welcome this component of the review.

Nevertheless, careful consideration has to be given to the determinants/criteria to ascertain qualification in this regard.

This proposal must be implemented in the medium term, utilising the Progressive Realisation model (PRM) as outlined in the report

(II) Component Two and Component Three

We welcome these elements as they largely validate our contention that the Means Test currently applied by NSFAS is inadequate and serves as an exclusionary mechanism. This largely excludes the component charecterised as the “missing middle” whom whilst excluded from the current scheme are unable to self-finance thus leading them to the doors of the unscrupulous commercial banks and loan sharks. This determination was also oblivious to factors such as the definition of the family, family politics as well as the household debt status.

It is within this context that we support the suggestion by the Minister (Dr Blade Nzimande) that there should be a “Free Education Committee” that should urgently look into options for the implementation of free education. We would want to warn that this committee should not conduct a “feasibility study” but should investigate an “implementation” plan.

Debt repayment

We are not at all shocked by the realization that NSFAS has been using illegal means to impose interest and to recover loans. We have complained about these for a long time now. We welcome the suggestion that all those who are blacklisted by NSFAS must be removed from the credit bureau. Though welcome, we believe that this does not remove them from the hangman’s noose, and that is why we believe that there must be a total amnesty for all those that are blacklisted and their debts must be scraped because clearly they are unable to repay them.

Determination of poverty

We welcome the acceptance of class as one of the primary yardsticks to measure poverty. We believe that this is a step in the right direction. We also believe that the outright rejection of the national question is a bit misdirected. To us, class and race in South Africa should not be contraposed but dialectically fused together.


The discovery of staggering amounts that are unpaid to NSFAS by the committee shows clearly that the illusion that NSFAS can depend on student repayment under these conditions of unemployment is simply unscientific. We also believe that the call for a “graduate tax” is misguided. We believe that only an increase in corporate tax and an increase in taxation for South Africans who earn top-notch salaries can ensure that there is a sustainable fund for free higher education without at the same time financially suffocating the poor working class.

HECS/ Graduate Tax

Although levying a Graduate Tax based on the Australian Higher Education Contribution Scheme will be a positive departure from the status quo, we are uncomfortable with the tenets of this recommendation for these reasons:

(i) It embraces the notion that higher education is a private gain for students and hence it is primarily students that should shoulder its cost through the so-called cost-sharing
(ii) Studies have alluded to the fact that in Australia, this scheme has exacerbated socio-economic inequalities
(iii) It is not always guaranteed that money levied through the Graduate Tax will be utilised towards financing education as opposed to defence and other class infused expenses
(iv) Capitalists particularly big business is absolved from funding education. We remain convinced that progressive taxation must be introduced as a way of funding free education.

Priority Fields of Study

We commend the report’s admission that NSFAS funding should not be linked to priority fields of study. Our Reasons are as follows

(i) the determination of what is a priority is an ideologically laden process
(ii) if the opposite is pursued, it can have the impact of leading to a “race to the bottom” in terms of humanities and social sciences which are crucial to the development of society
(iii) the admission policies in the faculties hosting these so-called “rare skills” are largely biased towards the middle and bourgeois classes hence these faculties still remain largely male and lily white


We welcome the mooted decentralization of NSFAS and we believe it is in line with our submission to the Review Committee. But we believe that decentralization to only a few of the country’s provinces will not serve the purpose. A few regional offices will not assist to ease the burden of running such a huge organization. We call on the Minister to ensure that NSFAS offices are erected in every Province.

FET Sector: A Major Gain

The proliferation of private higher education presents little opportunities in the advancement of free higher education. The principle must be that private education must be phased out, as this is a bastion of class inequalities. In line with the Report, we believe that the following should happen in order minimise the appeal of the private higher education and training sector to working class students

(i) The public FET sector must be significantly bolstered. This will be realised if the recommendation that the FET sector must be fully subsidised by the state is pursued
(ii) Admission policies in institutions of higher learning must be significantly challenged as this is one of the reasons that propel students in seeking studies in these private higher institutions

Fee Increases vis-à-vis Fee Capping

We note that the Report alludes to a fee capping mechanism through regulations to be gazetted. This is a positive step as institutions of higher learning have utilised “institutional autonomy” as an excuse to increase fees. The fee cap will

(i) Negate the racial and class make-up of Historically White Institutions through eliminating high fees as a deterrent to working class students
(ii) More NSFAS funds will be available to fund more students
(iii) This will reduce the debt that students accumulate through their studies

We also believe that a Fee Cap is not a panacea to the commodification of higher education and its subversion to the capitalist mode of production, but it is a step in the right direction.


We will table a comprehensive response to the Minister of Higher Education and Training at the appropriate time. We will also hold mass meetings in all institutions of higher learning in order to receive a mandate from students on what should be done. We will also hold a free education lecture, the details of which we will disburse soon.

For details Contact
Mbulelo Mandlana (President)
076 934 9863
Lazola Ndamase (Secretary General)
082 679 8718

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