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10/01/2018 12:30 SAST | Updated 10/01/2018 12:41 SAST

Learning Institutions Shouldn't Be Responsible For Government's Wild Promises

'This is a government policy choice, and it should not be landed on the tertiary institutions to manage or implement.'

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The current proposal for free tertiary education lacks important detail. However, the principle is that if you are poor and your family income is below a certain threshold, you would qualify for fee-free education at university level. (Dare I ask about TVET colleges, where it is better to be a water technician or electrician than an engineer?)

You don't have to pay between R33,000 and R 73,000 (which is what average annual fees are) if you are poor. This is a very substantial amount for a poor household, who may well have more than one student eligible to study beyond matric

There are, however, costs in addition to fees –– e.g. food, accommodation, transport and clothing –– which are not accommodated in the "fee-free" offer at this stage. Students are found sleeping in libraries because they cannot afford accommodation.

This is a government policy choice, and it should not be landed on the tertiary institutions to manage or implement. The government must shoulder its responsibilities. The department of higher education had better step up beyond the vague comments of minister Mkhize to date. We await eagerly the outcomes of her discussions with the heads of the tertiary institutions.

The EFF will serve the cause much better if they desist from causing mayhem at universities –– by directing their efforts towards the real centre of responsibility; namely, government. Why make institutions carry the responsibility for wild promises by the head of government? They would do well to make this a major plank for engagement in parliament too.

The ANC too should act to manage the consequences of the statement foisted upon the nation by the man they are still retaining as president of the country. The originator of this commitment (President Zuma) has been let off the hook, while the country scrambles around trying to attach meaning to his words. Maybe the EFF should direct students to the president's office to seek clarity and implementation.

While there is this commitment, we cannot run away from the fact that the numbers will only improve if there is a substantial investment in early childhood development and primary school education.

Perhaps the question of affordability should be widened to also ask ourselves whether we can afford the consequences of exclusion that poverty has caused? Our economy cannot expand or grow without improving the numbers, as well as the quality, of those with post-school qualifications. So while there is this commitment, we cannot run away from the fact that the numbers will only improve if there is a substantial investment in early childhood development and primary school education.

The offer of free education is not going to dramatically improve the numbers that qualify for tertiary studies. So my bet is that there is not going to suddenly be a huge demand. The fact of the matter is that if your parents are in that qualifying (poor) income group, the school you would have attended is not producing vast numbers of matriculants who qualify for the limited spaces at tertiary institutions.

So we probably can afford to give those qualifying students this break and in fact, we should ensure that the money made available will be extended to include the other important costs.

So please may we get to a time where the vast majority of kids who start Grade 1 get through matric, and then may the vast majority of them one day be well qualified to demand a place at a tertiary institution and demand from us the money to fund their studies.

Until that day, can we please just be sensible and generous to support those who genuinely qualify for their studies.

* Graeme Bloch is a visiting adjunct professor at the Public and Development Management School, University of the Witwatersrand