The head of the organisation representing South African universities on Friday said the country is in the midst of great social change in the way education is approached and funded.
Professor Ahmed Bawa, chief executive of Universities South Africa, was speaking to African News Agency (ANA) at Diakonia Centre in Durban, where he was set to address church leaders and church-based activists on the role of the church and civil society organs on education matters.
“I think we need to make the assumption that we are in the throes of a very big societal change in terms of the school funding model, and what that means is that there ought to be a much larger participation of civil society groups and so on in the roll out of this new system,” said Bawa.
On 16 December last year, president Jacob Zuma surprised the education sector by promising free education for tertiary level students who were from poor and working class backgrounds.
The announcement comes at a time when South Africa’s financial outlook is mostly regarded as unstable, and concerns have surfaced that the country simply does not have the money to fund the initiative.
But Bawa told ANA that the new model was not, in fact, free. Rather, it was an expanded National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) bursary system.
“I think we have to start by understanding that this is not a free-education system, it is really a new, expanded NSFAS bursary system that has been instituted, and that is an important distinction, because what it doesn’t mean is that students can automatically assume that they have got access to the bursaries,” said Bawa.
“A bursary comes with a set of conditions against which students have to qualify, [which entails] NSFAS conditions, but also conditions that pertain to admissions to universities,” he said.
“I don’t want to underplay the importance of this new system for the majority of South Africans. I think it’s a huge advance on what we have at the moment, and I think the important thing now is for us to begin to understand how to have a really decent registration period and a decent start to the academic year and to try and ensure that we don’t have another year of instability,” he said.
The country had to be more careful, he said, not just in the way universities and colleges were preparing for the new system, but also to ensure that the facilities that were created to assist students – such as central applications facilities – were used.
“I would like to emphasise that wherever it is possible, people should be advising young people who haven’t yet applied to a college or a university to use the central applications facility as a way of getting into the university and college system,” he said.