A growing gap between state support and fees is pricing students out of universities. Karen MacGregor reports
The South African Government fears that spiralling costs are pricing poor black students out of university and plans to cap student fees, which have doubled in the past five years to total R5 billion (£370 million) a year.
Naledi Pandor, the Education Minister, announced that a new policy under consideration would give the Government the power to place upper limits on total fee collections by the public higher education system.
"This would probably mean that government block-grant funds and tuition fees would be considered as a joint income stream," she said.
Research universities, which charge the highest fees - an average of R,000 (£2,000) a year per student - fear the move will harm their finances unless it is balanced by a big hike in state funding.
Ms Pandor said fees were jeopardising the Government's equality policies.
About half of the country's 700,000-plus higher education students fail to graduate. Many, especially those from disadvantaged schools, are underprepared and unable to cope with the demands of higher education - especially in a second language.
But, despite ever-increasing state allocations to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), many poor students continue to drop out, citing financial difficulties. Ms Pandor said tuition fees had become a "critical resource issue".
There is growing pressure on state funding support for the NSFAS: while university fees doubled in the past five years - to fund growth in activity - income to the NSFAS rose 30 per cent.
Ms Pandor added that the widening gap between fees and NSFAS funds meant that "the financial strain on students and their families, and in particular those who are economically disadvantaged, has increased to levels where our higher education equity policies are under threat".
In South Africa, fees constitute more than 30 per cent of institutional income compared with 20-22 per cent of university income in other countries.
Higher education has had a funding boost with a budget of R11.8 billion this financial year, a 9.2 per cent increase on the previous year. Of this, universities get R10.8 billion (a 9.4 per cent rise) and the NSFSA gets R954 million (a 7.1 per cent hike). Inflation is about 4 per cent.