Management at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) acknowledges receipt of petitions submitted by various student formations in Port Elizabeth and George. After reading the various petitions, we are of the opinion that the cause for quality, affordable higher education for academically-deserving poor and so-called “missing middle” students is noble and just. NMMU will continue to call on all sectors of society to invest more in higher education to ensure that universities can continue to provide quality teaching, research, and holistic support for our students.
South Africa is recognised as one of the most unequal countries in the world and the increased provision of quality higher education contributes to greater social justice, transformation and development. Simply stated, the most sustainable manner in which the State can break the cycle of inter-generational poverty, stimulate the economy, create appropriate jobs, redress imbalances in society, and reduce inequality, is by increasing its investment in, and broadening access to, higher education.
A decline in government funding for higher education over the past two decades coupled with a significant increase in student numbers, most of whom are from poor communities, has led to an over-reliance on student fees. NMMU is committed to widening access and acknowledges the burden these funding challenges have placed on our students and their families.
Fee increase for 2017
The announcement of the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, on fees for 2017, identified interim measures to address the plight of poor and needy students by:
- Fully covering fees for students that qualify under the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS);
- Subsidising the so-called “missing middle” for the fee increase up to a maximum of 8%.
Government and the Minister, along with the higher education sector, have emphasised that universities need the 8% fee increase to mitigate rising national and international inflationary costs, to broaden access, and to sustain the provision of quality education. The financial health and sustainability of NMMU is at stake, especially given the costs associated with the debt/down payment relief measures implemented in 2016 and the reintegration of outsourced services.
Our understanding of the Minister’s announcement is that this is an interim measure for 2017. A fee increase will not impact negatively on the poor and “missing middle” students since the government will make up the difference of up to 8%.
A forecast of the impact of a 0% increase for all students at NMMU is that it will result in a deficit of R383 million by 2019. To this end, it will be irresponsible of NMMU not to take advantage of the government’s proposal to raise fees by not more than 8%, since this will ensure the continued provision of quality higher education and sustainability of the university.
This year, NMMU out of its own volition assisted those who qualified for 2015 debt relief – academically deserving and financially needy students – giving these students the opportunity to return to the University to continue their studies. This loan funding included 1531 students to an amount of R21m. For the first time, it also offered assistance with down payment relief for students from the “missing middle”. Altogether, NMMU assisted 5043 students, resulting in a R30m negative cash flow at the end of February.
We further assisted zero Expected Family Contribution (EFC) students with a contribution towards books, food and accommodation. This amounted to R25.4m. In addition, NMMU absorbed the cost (R34.5m) of ending outsourcing.
To date, the accumulated fees debt for NMMU is R198m (as at 31 August 2016).
The demand for a complete debt write off, including NSFAS loans, is new and requires further engagement by a number of stakeholders. It will be grossly irresponsible for Management to accede to this request, as the present financial position of the University does not make this possible without a significant injection of further funding.
We are committed to engage with the student community and other stakeholders to openly and collectively explore ways of widening access for academically deserving, financially needy students.
Position on free higher education for the poor and joining the campaign
The 2015 #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements brought home the realisation that our national project of creating a non-racial, non-sexist, prosperous and democratic South Africa had not achieved its avowed goals. Stalled social and economic transformation, exacerbated by virtually stagnant economic growth, has emphasised the need to address pressing social and economic challenges in a sustainable manner. Widening access to quality higher education offers the only practical mechanism for achieving this.
Experience has shown that broadening access to quality higher education carries additional costs. Opening the doors of learning to the poor needs to be accompanied by a holistic package of interventions to ensure that all students can achieve their full potential. Among these, NMMU has piloted the following on- and off-campus:
- Access to IT devices
- Access to textbooks and other learning materials in libraries
- Student nutrition
- Wi-Fi connectivity
Universities must be in financially sound positions to fund these additional support requirements or poor students will remain marginalised.
In highly unequal societies, like South Africa, research has shown that free higher education for all will proportionally benefit the privileged more than the poor. We therefore do not support free higher education for those who can afford to pay fees.
NMMU has been actively involved in advocating for fee-free higher education for the poor. Vice-Chancellor, Professor Derrick Swartz, for example, led the Ministerial Task Team on Fee-Free Higher Education for the poor in 2012. More recently, we made written and oral submissions to the Presidential Fees Commission, wherein we proposed fee-free higher education for the poor, as well as additional financial assistance to the “missing middle”. We will continue to lobby for this.
The current funding model for student financial aid holds several challenges. It is of concern that NSFAS student loan recoveries have basically collapsed, falling by 61% between 2008 and 2014. The cost to NSFAS and the government of this collapse in loan recoveries is estimated to be about R4.3 billion for this period. This loss in recoveries revenue has had a significant negative impact on the ability of NSFAS to extend further.
Government has been responsive to these challenges and has brought in a new chair of NSFAS to rework the financial aid model and ensure that it becomes a viable fund to assist the poor. We need to give this intervention a chance and then actively engage with the recommendations as these emerge.
Private sector assistance with funding for poor students
A greater contribution and role played by the private sector and philanthropists will increase the number of beneficiaries of financial aid, as well as enhance the quality of teaching, learning and research by universities.
Given NMMU’s commitment to widening access to higher education for the poor, it has initiated a number of interventions to increase the amount of funding available to assist these students. This includes the restructuring of resource mobilisation activities at the University, and the increased lobbying of government and the private sector for additional funding.
The University already has a fundraising arm, the NMMU Trust, which is being restructured to improve its resource mobilisation capacities. The Trust raises funds from donors and the private sector for scholarships and bursaries. Thus far in 2016, an amount of just over R42 million in donations has been raised.
Assistance for the “missing middle”
NMMU has been pioneering its approach to assisting the “missing middle”who consist of students who are not poor enough to qualify for NSFAS, but cannot finance their own tuition.As shared, NMMU assisted “missing middle” students with down payment relief in 2016. We appreciate the recent interventions announced by the Minister for the “missing middle” and look forward to the report on further interventions, which will be made by the Ministerial Task Team appointed to develop a model for implementation in 2017.
Widening access for success and APS
NMMU has a strong ethos of “access for success”. We do this through ongoing research into student progress. As a result, seven programmes in the Faculty of Business and Economic Sciences (BES) increased their Admissions Point Score (APS) for 2017 after following due process. This process is a lengthy one and includes student representation. The request to change the above APS requirements, for example, began in 2014 and was approved by various committees right up to the NMMU Council, prior to the #FeesMustFall in 2015.
Applicants who do not meet the APS and/or subject requirements could qualify for admission through access testing. There is a testing band linked to the APS for those who do not meet the direct admissions requirements. Those applicants who fall in the testing band are invited to be tested and considered for admission based on their school and admissions test results.
More than half of NMMU’s registered first-time entering students enter via this alternative access route each year. On further reflection, changing both the APS and the testing band could have the unintended consequence of limiting access. Consequently, for the 2017 intake, we have put a process in motion to obtain permission from the relevant University committees to revert back to the 2016 APS testing band for these seven programmes.
If there are other concerns in this regard, or if more information is needed, Management is committed to engaging with students further. Furthermore, appeals from affected individual applicants can be lodged with Admissions for the Admissions Committee to consider.
Improved efficiencies and cost management
The University recognises the need to improve its efficiency and cost management. It has initiated various measures to secure its long-term sustainability, including interventions to:
- Enhance the strategic and financial viability of our academic programmes.
- Review organisational structures to ensure fitness-for-purpose.
- Remodel business operations, including the reintegrated services.
In addition, NMMU innovatively uses funding allocated to it to achieve its strategic priorities to the benefit of students. For example, we have used the funding allocated by government for student housing to leverage additional loan funding to significantly increase the number of places available in on-campus student accommodation in Port Elizabeth and George.
Management will shortly be convening a multi-stakeholder sustainability imbizo to openly engage with students and staff regarding the university’s financial position. The overarching aim of this imbizo will be to create shared understanding of the tough choices that will need to be made for the long-term sustainability of NMMU.
Interventions to mitigate the impact of the shutdown on the academic calendar
NMMU recognises that, due to the recent disruptions to academic activities, contingencies need to be put in place to catch up lost teaching time and to accommodate tests that had to be postponed and due dates for assignments. The Executive Deans of each faculty are exploring ways on how best to address this in the interests of all students. This includes engaging faculty management committees to share information and give direction in this regard.There are obviously practical challenges to how much can be caught up this year if the forced closure of campuses and disruption of services continues.
Ending of outsourcing and related issues
The University remains committed to ending outsourcing in accordance with the Council resolution of 21 November 2015. This commenced with the insourcing of catering (80 staff) and security (270 staff) services in April and July 2016 respectively.
NMMU has been engaging with the issues that have emerged from Council’s decision through a multi-stakeholder task team, with significant student representation, in an effort to co-create workable and sustainable models for ending outsourcing.
Port Elizabeth and George campus-specific operational issues to be addressed via task teams
There are a number of detailed and more specific issues raised in the petitions submitted by students on our campuses in Port Elizabeth and George.
These include matters relating to: service delivery; academic administration (e.g. re-examination fees); cooking facilities; off-campus accommodation; sponsorship for BTech students; internships for students who are in courses with no practical component; improved transparency in residential placement; more security guard houses for residences; and so on.
Management proposes that these be addressed through multi-stakeholder task teams similar to those established in 2016 for outsourcing and financial aid. We appeal to students to assist us by participating actively in these task teams and ensuring continuity of representation so that we can develop joint solutions as a matter of urgency within mutually agreeable deadlines.
NMMU recognises that protesting students have the right to protest peacefully. Equally, those who do not choose to participate in protests, have the right to continue with their studies. That is the essence of democracy.
However, continued disruptions have wide-ranging implications that impact negatively on the academic activities and operations of the University. A continued shutdown will result in:
- The academic programme being compromised to the extent that we will reach a point where the academic calendar for the year will have to be significantly adjusted, and possibly extended into 2017.
- The possible postponement of the summer graduation along with the possibility that some of our final-year students cannot graduate in 2017.
- The University operations being severely compromised, including processing applications for admission to academic programmes for 2017, as well as the financial support for qualifying students.
As such, Management strongly appeals that we return to normal operations from Tuesday, 27 September 2016. Any outstanding issues in the petitions can be addressed jointly with the aim of concluding them within agreed timeframes, while academic activities continue.
Depending on the students’ response, and based on Management’s assessment of the situation on the ground, the University may be compelled to implement drastic measures going forward, including possibly suspending lectures until we can guarantee the safety of all our students and staff.