HIGHER Education Minister Blade Nzimande on Tuesday(today) called for higher taxes to fund free tertiary education for the poor.
“Our country, I would like to argue, has enough money to support free higher education for the poor, but the problem is that more resources are in the private sector than in the government fiscus,” he told the National Assembly.
“My own considered view is that government must have the political will to tax the rich and the wealthy to fund higher education. None of us must develop cold feet about the necessity of taxing the rich to fund our children.”
Nzimande was opening a debate on the nationwide student protests that prompted President Jacob Zuma last week to announce that university fees would not be increased in 2016.
He said an announcement would be made on Thursday as to where government was going to find the R2.6 billion it was going to need to bridge the funding gap created by the concession.
“We are working out exactly what different sectors will contribute together with the minister of finance,” Nzimande told MPs.
He blamed the crisis on advances the ANC government had made since the fall of apartheid in subsidising university education for poor and working class students.
“The nub of the matter is that we are victims of our own successes as the ANC government,” he said, adding that between 2004/5 and the current financial year, the funding allocation to universities from the fiscus had increased from R9.8 billion to R30.38 billion.
“But between 1994 and 2013 we doubled the number of students in higher education. This huge increase, so large a number of poor students, entering the university system — today we are sitting with about a million university students…” he said.
“The increase in financial contribution, however, has not risen in line with the increase we have had, this is what has increased the reliance of our universities on student fees. But in this context we have to closely examine whether universities themselves are spending their monies, including those with reserves, prudently.”
A few students howled their objection, and later clapped when opposition MPs rose to criticise the ANC and called for fees to be scrapped for poor students.
Speaker Baleka Mbete urged them to be quiet.
The student slogan “Blade must fall” was echoed by some opposition parties MPs who called for Nzimande’s head.
The Inkatha Freedom Party’s Mkhuleko Hlengwa lashed out at the minister for being what he termed “insensitive”, “out of touch”, and “detached from reality” in his response to the students’ demands.
“The honourable minister must do the right thing and resign,” he said to some cheers from the few students seated in the public gallery.
Democratic Alliance MP Yusus Cassim also took aim at Nzimande, saying the minister should take direct responsibility for the crisis.
“Shuffle out Blade, the SACP can have him all to themselves.”
“The fees will fall. The only question is what will fall first – the fees or the ANC government?” he said.
The Economic Freedom Fighters called for free tertiary education, and Cope, the National Freedom Party, and United Democratic Movement (UDM) concurred that “fees must fall”.
UDM MP Nqabayomzi Kwankwa said the fact that all political parties were taken aback by the revolt that swept campuses and saw thousands of students descend on Parliament in protest last week signalled a disconnect between parties and voters.
His party supported their call for free higher education, he added, partly because it would be a better use for billions of rands lost annually through wasteful government spending.
Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Mulder mocked the embattled Nzimande, as well as the ANC’s criticism of the police for using force to disperse the students. He said Nzimande had spent years calling for a mass revolution.
“When it came he found himself on the wrong side,” he said.
Mulder said it was telling that the students did not allow the government to shift blame for the funding problems plaguing tertiary education.
“I must congratulate the students. In this instance they were not brainwashed.”
He said the fact that their battle cry soon turned to “ANC must fall”, showed that the real issue driving the protests was wider.
“Everybody knows it is about a broader anger at a government that only makes promises and fails to deliver.”
DA leader Mmusi Maimane accused Zuma and Nzimande of failing to act incisively and said he rejected the idea that there was not enough money available to increase funding for higher education. He added that Nzimande had withheld two reports that set out the extent of the funding crisis.
“In fact, Blade must fall,” he said.
Cope leader Mosiua Lekota said the fact that there would be no fee increase next year simply meant that there would be increases in 2017.
“We don’t want that. We want zero fees,” he said. – ANA