The days since President Jacob Zuma's announcement have felt long and been littered with more questions than answers about what it would really take to implement free, quality, decolonised education. The announcement took students by surprise.
As the start of the academic year approaches, we are forced to consider some of the practicalities, given that on one hand, the university vice-chancellors have argued that they were not notified before the announcement, nor given an opportunity to make adequate plans for implementation.
On the other hand, the newly appointed Minister of Higher Education, Dr Hlengiwe Mkhize, has claimed that universities were actually consulted.
The truth, however, is not what is being called into question here, and the blame game between university vice-chancellors and government is not at all new. When the demand for free, quality, decolonised education was made in 2015, vice-chancellors responded to students in a very hypocritical manner.
They blamed the need to increase fees on lack of funding from the government, but were not willing to take a stand with students to demand that government be held accountable for grossly underfunding higher education.
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Government displayed its own hypocrisy, by blaming the fee increases on universities –– despite the evidence that, by many standards, they had for more than a decade been underfunding our universities.
The models presented to the Heher Commission offered a mix of good and bad ideas.
This stems from the commission being set up without bringing different experts together to come up with a brilliant, sustainable plan as a collective.
Different groups presented separately, and the silos that have existed both ideologically and practically continue to exist in the models that came out of the commission.
On the one hand, there are models which contest neoliberal capitalist thinking and other cost-recovery approaches –– like the current NSFAS system, which punishes the black poor. These models see education as a public good, from which the whole society benefits.
The Fees Must Fall movement was more than a demand for free education. It also demanded a quality decolonised education.
On the other hand, there are models that are glorified loan schemes, which ultimately put poor students at the mercy of banks and seek merely to "widen the floors of the cage" –– a phrase used by the Brazilian rural workers movement.
In these models, education is seen as something the individual benefits from –– and what they propose has the potential to cripple poor black students even more than the current NSFAS system.
President Zuma's announced aim of phasing in free education through the NSFAS system by converting loans to grants for households earning below R350,000 per year can be seen as a step in the right direction, but the reality is that this is not a holistic solution.
Nor does it state where the money will come from –– perhaps because it will not really be President Zuma's problem; Treasury must simply find the money.
The Fees Must Fall movement was more than a demand for free education. It also demanded quality, decolonised education. All things considered, a rather simple demand.
Its complexity arises when we look at how the demand must sustainably be met.
We demanded free education because education should not be a debt sentence, quality education because we need an education that is globally competitive, and decolonised education because our university system is still not one that is open and welcoming to poor black people.
This also means that aside from the struggles that black students face, there are exploitative labour practices on campuses, which still exist persist despite some progress in the form of an end to outsourcing at some universities.
The apartheid structures of historically white and black universities still exist.
For example, the accreditation for LLB degrees was on the brink of being removed from UCT –– and actually was removed from WSU –– for two completely different reasons. At WSU, it was because the infrastructure and academic staff were of poor quality. Whereas at UCT, (rated the 40th-best law school in the world) it was because they do not create enough black law graduates.
These contrasting reasons can be put down to the failure to uplift historically black universities and the failure to decolonise historically white universities.
Free education encompasses more than monetary liberation -- it entails a liberation of the bonds which seek to cripple the holistic freedom of the student in the university environment.
If we look at the past, the lessons we can learn from basic education is that if you open access and you do not place enough importance on quality, you create a gap in the market. This usually gets filled by for-profit private schools, disadvantaging students who go to public schools without adequate infrastructure and often unqualified or underqualified teachers.
The challenges in the basic education system are exacerbated in the higher education system by low throughput rates (the number of students who graduate, especially within the minimum number of years the course is meant to last) and high drop-out rates.
When our Thuto Ke Lesedi (Education is the Light) model for free education was devised, it was with two goals in mind. The first was the reduction of fees, and the second was free, quality, decolonised education.
The reduction of fees can be done through various means –– for example, the reduction of contact. This would entail exploring and investing in digital learning for some aspects of the university curriculum and applying semi-correspondence approaches to learning.
These methods could reduce the amount of teaching time, leaving room for discussion, debate, and critical thinking, and would assist with infrastructure limitations.
Reviewing the practice of sourcing textbooks and other learning materials from overseas is inherent to the demand for decolonisation, and helps reduce costs –– because of the high inflation that comes with textbooks and other teaching materials from abroad.
This contrasts with most solutions outlined in the Heher Commission report –– in that they were primarily concerned with funding, while quality and decolonised education were mere addenda to free education.
Free education encompasses more than monetary liberation -- it entails liberation from the bonds which cripple the holistic freedom of the student in the university environment.
Whilst we welcome the announcement from President Zuma, we must bear in mind that solutions that are implemented through existing structures, like the NSFAS system, come with limitations.
Progress and victory are two different things, and our focus needs to be on holistic solutions that are tailored to our reality.
It is with this mindset that we escape short-termism and use evidence to show what works, and not simply what is most cost-effective in the short term, or serves a political purpose.
In identifying basic education as a fundamental human right, the Freedom Charter understood that access to education facilitates upward social mobility, economic participation and emancipation from the poverty trap.
Unfortunately, the nature of our economic system in South Africa and globally also indicates that higher education is critical to economic participation.
We cannot afford to see a separation between fundamentally changing basic education, and fundamentally changing higher education.
There are currently over 3 million South Africans between the ages of 18 to 24 who are economically excluded from our society; 3 million to whom the basic education advocated by the Constitution has not managed to provide the social inclusion and economic freedom that the Constitution advocates.
Therefore, it becomes a social imperative to understand that free undergraduate education in South Africa is now a basic necessity. We cannot afford to see a separation between fundamentally changing basic education and fundamentally changing higher education.
Currently, our university system excludes many capable students, exploits workers, has maintained apartheid planning (by having white, resourced universities and black, underresourced universities), produces research that does not address the challenges of our country, and does not adequately make use of the many technological innovations available to improve the standards of our universities.
Looking to the future, the need for an entirely new educational ecosystem becomes quite evident.
Read part two of this series: In The Age Of Innovation: Universities, Efficacy, And Knowledge