PRETORIA, Changes to a system of free tertiary education and training in South Africa will be undertaken in a fiscally sustainable manner, says Higher Education and Training Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize.

Briefing the media here Thursday on the 2018 registration process at tertiary institutions, the Minister said this meant rolling out reforms at a measured pace and re-prioritising funding within existing budgets.

President Jacob Zuma announced free higher education and training for poor and working-class families on Dec 16, 2017. The announcement followed debates on what was to be done with the rising cost of higher education in South Africa after the #FeesMustFall campaign of 2015.

Mkhize said the policy decision, which would be phased in over a five-year period, entailed extending and strengthening the government's support for poor students to enter public universities and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges to include the working classes.

It does this by lifting the threshold to qualify for financial assistance to students from South African households with a combined annual income of up to 350,000 Rand (about 28,450 US dollars) per annum.

The policy decision entails effectively changing the definition of the poor and working class to include families with household incomes of up to 350,000 Rand per annum and extends the provision of free higher education and training to the children of the bottom 90 per cent of South African households, provided they meet the academic admission criteria and requirements of the TVET colleges or universities, and that they have applied for and been offered a place to study at the institution.

Mkhize said it should be noted that there are a defined number of spaces at each institution, determined by the institution's approved enrolment plan.

The announcement by the President further provides for full bursaries for tuition and study materials to qualifying poor and working class South African students at public TVET colleges and universities, and subsidised accommodation or transport capped at specific levels for those who qualify, starting with first time entry students in 2018, and phased-in over a period of five years.

It also means providing for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) packages already allocated to returning existing university students in 2018, provided they meet the academic progression requirements, to be converted from loans into full bursaries.

Mkhize said NSFAS has already received in excess of 300 000 applications for first year students for the 2018 academic year at universities and TVET colleges.

Government assures South Africans that all applicants in possession of a firm offer from a university or TVET college will be assessed for funding using the revised criteria. All those in possession of a firm offer from a university or TVET college, but who did not apply for NSFAS funding, will be assisted [and] students who may not have applied at an institutions or NSFAS and are looking for a space in the post-school system will be assisted through the Central Applications Clearing House (CACH), she said.