South Africa has announced Naledi Pandor as the new higher education minister in a cabinet reshuffle.
The former minister of science and technology must now “extend fully subsidised free higher education to well over 90 percent of South African households”, as announced by former president Jacob Zuma in December.
The government allocated ZAR57 billion (US$4.8 billion) to fund free education for first-year higher education students in the 2018 budget announcement. This investment makes higher education the fastest growing spending sector according to Eyewitness News.
Students from low-income households earning less than ZAR350,000 (US$29,000) per annum are eligible for free tuition and financial support under the free fees proposals which came into effect this month.
Current students who are funding their education through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme will be granted a bursary in place of the loan from this year, Eyewitness News reported.
Former finance minister Malusi Gigaba said free education will be extended to all years of study over the coming year.
“This is an important step forward in breaking the cycle of poverty and confronting youth unemployment, as labour statistics show that unemployment is lowest for tertiary graduates,” he said, according to Eyewitness News.
However, opponents have criticised the government for creating a regressive policy that will worsen poverty for low-income earners, according to The Conversation. The policy will be funded by increased taxation which will eat up a higher proportion of less wealthy households’ income than higher earners.
Free tuition fees will level the playing field to access to higher education regardless of income levels. But because there is already heavy income inequality in South Africa, offering universal opportunity actually redistributes already scarce resources away from low-income earners to more privileged students.
Pandor already has experience in education reforms after overseeing the complete overhaul of the education system as minister of education from 2004 to 2009, reported The Times Higher Education.
“The fact that she was recently minister of science and technology has a huge implication because of the extent to which the two ministries are relevant to the high education system,” said CEO of Universities South Africa, Ahmed Bawa, according to Eyewitness News.