Can SA afford fee-free education? If so, how?
South Africa can afford free higher education for poor and working-class students.
But importantly the feasibility of free higher education goes beyond affordability –– free education is something that should not be interpreted through a narrow budgetary lens. When free education is invested in youth coming out of marginalised communities, it becomes an investment with well-known economic, social, cultural and even political returns.
The South African fiscus is burdened by a social welfare monstrosity, meaning the bulk of our population lives on social grants and free housing. Free higher education disqualifies a significant part of our population from depending on social grants and free housing, because economically active citizens are automatically disqualified from benefitting from social grants upon employment.
Free education is not a cost to the state, because South Africa will, in fact, make money from free higher education.
Our economy is currently performing poorly as a result of low investment –– people don't invest in SA, because it is expensive to invest in the country. Ensuring that the bulk of our population is skilled will lead to attracting investment into SA, thus making money for SA.
There are many ways in which free higher education can fund itself –– eg, investing in skills under this developmental state will enable us to elevate a significant part of our population into the economically active sector, from which we can derive more tax to fund the next cycle of learners.
My perspective is based on principles of redistributive justice in pursuit of collective social mobility for everyone, and not just the top 10 percent.
How will this be implemented?
Reading government's statement, this is how fee-free education will be implemented:
1. Those who just wrote matric and have received a firm offer and have applied for an NSFAS grant will be assessed on new criteria that determine who is poor or working-class. It will no longer be young people who come from households earning up to R122,000 a year –– it has now increased to a bracket of R350,000 per year. This expands the definition of who is poor and working-class, and expands free higher education to more than 90 percent of South African households.
2. If you are in your 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th or 6th year (if you're studying medicine), and were on NSFAS, your NSFAS loan is effectively converted into a 100 percent grant –– meaning you will no longer have to pay it back. NSFAS remains the central administrator of grants –– that are no longer loans –– this is all that has changed.
In 2007 the ANC resolved that higher education must be free for the poor and the working class until at least the attainment of the first degree.
The precondition to accessing free higher education is a firm offer allocated by the 26 public universities if you are going to university, and one of the 56 TVET colleges if you're going to a TVET college.
Unlike in the past, when NSFAS was processed at a campus, NSFAS is now centralised in a student-centred model, in which everyone has to apply online.
Do universities have the infrastructure or the capacity to accommodate the fee-free plan for all prospective students?
At the heart of the higher education funding crisis in South Africa is a higher education system that is grossly underfunded, small in size, unfairly meritocratic and increasingly commodified and sold as a private good accessible to those who can buy it, and inaccessible to the bulk of the population who are the poor and working class.
Free higher education cannot be a political ploy. Post-apartheid South Africa identified widening participation in higher education as a strategic tool to undo the socioeconomic legacy of apartheid, which polarised SA into one of the most unequal countries in the world.
Unfortunately, a post-1994 neoliberal approach to higher education underpinned and presided over the continued commodification –– selling and buying –– of education.
In 2007, the ANC resolved that higher education must be free for the poor and working class until at least the attainment of the first degree -- this did not get implemented.
In 2012 in Mangaung, the ANC started putting dates to their goal of finalising the policy on higher education, and said this should be done by 2013, with the roll-out of free education in 2014. This never happened either, and in 2015, #FeesMustFall started.
#FMF was in many ways a response to the ANC government's failure to implement its own policies.
The ANC had to arrest the widening trust deficit between itself and its electorate, which it had promised that their kids would go to university. In response to the protests, the president agreed to a commission of enquiry, as suggested by academics and vice chancellors.
When the commission ended, it had a host of recommendations -- the pronouncement of government and the Heher Report -- and government accepted 80 percent of the Heher recommendation.
The only recommendation that government rejected -- and correctly so –– was the monstrous multibillion-rand income contingency loan that was recommended to be imposed on every student, regardless of their family background or whether they are in a public or private institution, and regardless of whether they were poor or rich.
Prioritise the funding of infrastructure in TVET colleges as well as historically black institutions.
The commission was given eight months, requested longer, and took just under two years. It gave the report to the president by August 2017 -- around November, they finalised the response and communicated it in December.
They processed 750 pages of something which is a matter life or death, and this cannot be an issue of timing.
If one is asking why now, one is almost saying that the president's administration -- which started in 2014 -- must have taken at least five years to answer the students' plea. That would be contradictory to the people who kept on saying, "Release the report".
They wanted more than just the release of the report, they also wanted the president's response to it.
The response is quite clear -- the government will:
1. Increase the proportion of GDP contribution to the university subsidy from 0.68 percent to 1 percent, to address the gross underfunding of the sector and bring the proportion in line with comparable economies.
2. Prioritise the funding of infrastructure in TVET colleges as well as historically black institutions. We will make TVET colleges free, as recommended by the commission.
3. Make university free, fully subsidising the full cost of study for poor and working-class students coming from the bottom 90 percent of South African households.
* This article was transcribed from an interview with HuffPost SA.