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Pretoria – The commission of inquiry into fees for higher education held its first hearing at the Tshwane council chamber on Wednesday.

Presenting their submissions were the South African Union of Students (SAUS), University of Witwatersrand and members of the public Ntokozo Mahlangu, Zenzele Phahla, as well as the Department of Higher Education and Training.

SAUS were adamant that free higher education was feasible. SAUS representatives said the majority of students, mostly black, come from poor backgrounds and because of that they did not have access to higher learning.

Union president Avela Mjajubane said the increase of “black debt” at universities was also the cause of a high percentage of drop-outs. “The majority of students who manage to enrol for the first year of study in universities end up being indebted to the university and most of the time dropping out,” he said.

Mjajubane said as a short-term goal, free education must be made available to the poor and the working class whose parents couldn’t afford to pay for their children’s fees. However, it should be available to all students in the long run.

He said free education would help reduce criminal activities as the majority would then have acquired skills and become employable. Free education would also increase research output and better the country economically and socially.

The union proposed that salaries of vice-chancellors, ministers, mayors, the president and parliamentarians be reduced to assist in making funds available for free education.

“It does not make sense that most parliamentarians and presidents when they retire still get loads of money. It will be fair that they are also treated like any other pensioners who get pension funds,” said SAUS secretary-general Sthembiso Ndlovu.

He said free education was not negotiable but rather a demand and that it must take place by the beginning of next year.

The union representatives said if push came to shove, they would close all universities.

Wits associate professor Hlonipho Mokoena said the goal was not only to put 10 000 students into universities, but to not disadvantage those already there who couldn’t afford to pay to further their studies.

Member of the public Ntokozo Mahlangu proposed accredited online universities. He said online universities would reduce many costs students face such as accommodation, transport, food, as the university would be accessible anywhere at any time. “Online universities would eliminate a lot of things, including the cost of learning materials,” he said.

Mahlangu said he was certain online universities would be of use to what he referred to as the “missing middle class”. He believed technology was a catalyst to get more students educated at affordable cost.

Gwebinkundla Qonde, director-general for the department of Higher Education and Training, said any decision to abolish fees as demanded must be located within the context of funding universities adequately to provide quality higher education and research, among others.

The commission was established by President Jacob Zuma in January to look into the feasibility of free higher education. This was after students protested to demand free education.

The hearing is chaired by Judge Jonathan Arthur Heher, assisted by advocate Gregory Ally and Leah Khumalo.

When institutions are burnt, the real people who suffer are the students and future generations of students, according to Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib, speaking to African News Agency after making submissions to Judge Heher.

“I think we need to recognise protest, and we will (do so), but we need to be measured in how we engage in that. We cannot have a situation where people are threatened and arson happens in the universities environment.”

Habib said he was happy that the commission had kicked off its public hearings, allowing stakeholders to give input on the burning issues of escalating tertiary fees. “I’m happy that this process has started, I would want it to be concluded because frankly we cannot continue with the instability in the system,” said Habib.

The inquiry continues.

Additional reporting ANA

– Pretoria News