The announcement follows a commitment by President Cyril Ramaphosa in his maiden state of the nation address last week to follow through on a promise made by his predecessor Jacob Zuma in December in his last speech as leader of the ruling ANC to provide free tertiary training.

It was widely seen as a populist move by an embattled leader, with economists saying there simply was no money to implement the measure.

But Ramaphosa has held to it and said the policy would initially consist of covering fees for first-year students from households with a combined income of lower than R350 000 a year.

According to the Budget, allocations to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme are set to increase at an average annual rate of 51,6%, rising from R10,1 billion in the last financial year to R35,3 billion in 2020/21.

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“This significant increase is due to an additional allocation of R43,4 billion for the scheme over the MTEF period for the gradual phasing in of fee-free higher education for the poor and working class.”

Gigaba confirmed that the policy would apply from this year, and would cover not only tuition but travel, study materials and accommodation for students in need.

“The additional funding will increase the number of undergraduate university students to be supported by the scheme from 230 469 in 2017/18 to an estimated 1 123 212 over the medium term, and the number of TVET (technical and vocational education and training) college students from 230 068 in 2017/18 to 1 137 204 over the same period.”

It will cost R105 million over three years to administer the policy, which is included in the R57 billion budgetary allocation.

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Free higher education thus becomes a reality two and half years after the Fees Must Fall student movement unleashed itself on Parliament when then Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene delivered the medium-term budget policy statement in October 2015.

– African News Agency