A surprise announcement that free tuition would be introduced this year at universities is bringing a flood of young hopefuls to campuses across South Africa, even as government has yet to say how the plan will be funded. In December President Jacob Zuma said universities would be free for all but the wealthiest.
"Having amended the definition of poor and working-class students, government will now introduce fully subsidised free higher education and training for poor and working class South African undergraduate students, starting in 2018 with students in their first year of study at our public universities," Mr Zuma said in a televised address.
Previously only the poorest from households earning less than 122,000 rand (Dh37,510) a year qualified for a state loan. Now, students from families earning below 350,000 rand qualify for a full scholarship that will not have to be paid back, thus including working-class families as well.
However, with the new academic year freshly underway uncertainty remains around whether or not universities will be financed to support the scheme. Government has yet to say whether the extra 40 billion rand or so it will cost has been made available.
This is not stopping thousands of would-be students turning up to campuses around the country trying to get registered as the academic year begins this month.
"I'm taking the risk to leave home and go to Nelson Mandela University (NMU), even though I don't have funding confirmed," says Sphesihle Khumalo, who faces a 16-hour cross country trip from his home in KwaZuluNatal province, to NMU in the Eastern Cape 1,200 kilometres away. "I'm so, so nervous."
Mr Khumalo has already been accepted to study nursing science at the university. Most degrees cost anywhere between 30,000 rand to 60,000 rand a year, depending on the subject.
Mr Khumalo, together with thousands of others, will therefore arrive hoping the funding will be arranged by the time he arrives. If not, he will be stuck far from home without a roof over his head. "I don't even have any down-payment. I don't even know what I'm going to do when I get to the campus," he says.
The university has since said it will accept students who were already approved under the previous government bursary scheme, and also allow ones that qualified under the new system to register - at least until the end of February when government will announce how it plans to fund the new scheme.
The country does have a government funded loan scheme that supports around 70,000 students to the value of 15bn rand a year, the National Student Aid Financial Scheme (NSFAS). These funds have yet to pay out, probably because its administrators are scrambling to figure out how it will fit in with the new directive.
In total South Africa has 26 universities supporting 1 million students. Of these, 200,000 or so are first-year placements, according to representative body University South Africa (USAf). Since most are likely to qualify for free enrolment, the NSFAS would cover less than 10 per cent of students.
A major concern is that campuses are overrun by desperate would-be students trying to get in. Stampedes are not uncommon at registration days and at one incident in 2012 a woman was killed and dozens injured while trying to sign up at the University of Johannesburg.
"One of the big challenges we face is the possible danger, or outcome of the calls made for students to pitch up on campuses," the chief executive of USAf Ahmed Bawa told state television broadcaster SABC. "What we really want is to do this in a way that doesn't cause the potential for danger."
Not helping is that opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is calling for school-leavers to turn out at universities and demand they be enrolled.
“The EFF will be at the gates of all learning institutions to ensure that priority is not only given to those who can afford to pay,” local media reported the organisation saying last month.
USAf warned potential students not to just walk into universities to try and apply at the last minute‚ saying such a situation could turn out deadly.
“Universities South Africa is deeply concerned by the call made by some political leaders for students to simply turn up at universities for enrolment without having made appropriate prior arrangements for their admission," it said in a statement. "This is unfortunate as it may result in a replay of events with potential to cause injury to students and their families. We recall with deep anxiety the event at the University of Johannesburg in January 2012‚ which resulted in the tragic death of a parent.”
EFF officials have since taken to social media such as Twitter to promise bottled water and food will be on hand to supply those who arrive at campuses and demand to be registered.
USAf said it was taken by surprise by Mr Zuma's December announcement. "We have raised our concerns about the timing of that announcement and the absence of a clear implementation strategy‚ implementation plan and adequate roll-out time for such a significant development in the funding of our public higher education system.
“Ideally‚ we would have liked a year to roll out the new system; instead we have two to three weeks. We have repeatedly raised our concerns about the use of the student fee issue as a political football.”
Still unanswered is where the money is going to come from to fund free studies. Although no official count has been released as yet, government documents leaked to the Sunday Times late last year estimated it would be at least 40bn rand.
The country's treasury is already struggling to balance its books. Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba has said the coming year would have a 50bn rand hole in the annual state budget, rising to 69bn rand in the next year. Much of this was being consumed by state debt, which would consume 15 per cent of the treasury within three years.
Mr Gigaba has said the treasury is working on a funding plan, which will be revealed when he delivers the state budget due this month. He indicated that Mr Zuma wanted to head off further protests against university fees, which have disrupted campuses over the past couple of years.
"If the president had not acted this year to provide some funding it would have resulted in further protests," Mr Gigaba said in Cape Town.
However it will be funded, the money will likely put a squeeze on an already tightly confined exchequer, says Free State University economist professor Philippe Burger.
"Though taxes can be increased, room to do so in our low growth economy is very limited. Already the finance minister must wrestle with a 50bn rand deficit when he presents his budget.”
He says taxes might already have to increase just to shrink the deficit that existed prior to the free-education announcement. Thus, the real question is what expenditure other than higher education can be cut? Pre-school or basic education? Pensions? Funding for hospitals and ante-natal clinics?
"What needs to be cut is a question proponents of fee-free education refuse to answer," says Prof Burger.
"Ignoring it though, will not make it disappear."