Oh, not another inquiry
What do leaders in government do when faced with a difficult task, or asked critical questions? Order a commission of inquiry. We’ve seen this many times, and often the reports from such costly commissions are swept under the carpet, or recommendations are never implemented – all at great cost to the country.
This week we got yet another commission. President Jacob Zuma announced one to look into the feasibility of free education for the poor – against the backdrop of the #FeesMustFall student movement, which, in November, forced government and universities to halt the increase of fees this year. Now the students are back and demanding free education now. This resulted in registrations being cancelled at some institutions this week.
Then comes President Zuma, saying he has given the commission eight months to investigate.
There is much that’s wrong with this latest commission. Since Zuma took office in 2009, there have already been two similar commissions that probed the very same matter of university funding and the affordability of free education.
In 2013, a team led by Cyril Ramaphosa produced a voluminous report about the funding of universities. It revealed that universities were underfunded by between 40% and 60%, adding that there was an urgent need for them to be recapitalised. There is no evidence to suggest its recommendations have been implemented.
A year earlier, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande had appointed Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University vice-chancellor Derrick Swartz to look into the feasibility of free higher education for the poor. It found that it was possible. But Nzimande never made the report public until he was forced to do so at the height of the student protests last year.
Zuma is now reinventing the wheel. The terms of reference for the new commission will look into institutional autonomy, higher education cost structures, cost drivers, how to structure a subsidy for the poor and higher education inflation. But one would have assumed and expected that Nzimande’s team also looked into how funding for poor students would be implemented.
Another commission will cost the fiscus and delay free education. South Africans are demanding decisive leadership to ensure no child is denied the right to education because of his or her background.