Off the bat lemme just say this – I don’t necessarily agree with everything you’re about to read.
We’ve just had a few people send it our way with words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘argument closed’ attached, so we thought we would tell you what Nico Cloete, Extraordinary Professor at the University of the Western Cape [his title, not ours], had to say that people found so illuminating.
His piece appeared on Fin24, and in a nutshell outlines why free higher education will only benefit those from wealthier families, many of whom can already afford the fees in place.
It’s a lengthy piece, but I’ll try my best to pull some excerpts that provide a summary of sorts:
Firstly, there is no such thing as “free higher education”. Universities are very expensive. Rather, the issue is who pays what and when? Secondly, international research shows that there is broad agreement among economists of higher education funding that government subsidies are “regressive”, meaning that subsidies favour the rich…
To state the obvious, in South Africa free higher education will widen, not reduce, inequality. This is because the low participation rate (currently at 20%), combined with free tuition, would immediately restrict the expansion of places.
In addition the main problem for the poor in South Africa is not that they cannot afford higher education. The issue is that less than 5% of them qualify for entry into universities.
The contrast with the 5% whose parents earn over R600 000 could not be more marked. The percentage who qualify to enter university in this bracket is over 70%.
It will be the children of the new political and business elite who have the significant social, cultural and economic capital who will succeed in school and gain access to tertiary education.
Like the rest of Africa, South Africa has limited (even zero) growth and one of the most unequal and inefficient school systems on the continent. Installing a free university system on top of that will only serve to solidify and expand inequality.
The issue is thus not feasibility, but whether South Africa wants to adopt another self-destructive policy that will widen inequality and privilege the de-racialising rich. As such, the question to be addressed by the Fees Commission should have been: What is required for a sustainable higher education system with affordability for those who qualify for access?
As I mentioned that’s really just a nugget of what Professor Cloete had to say, but I will also touch on what he thinks South Africa should do moving forward:
The issue is to fix the undergraduate university and the college systems, provide vastly expanded education and training opportunities, put in place a modern progressive graduate tax instead of an outdated loan scheme and stop raiding the Treasury. So while the fees commission and the media are looking at money, the issue is political and systemic.
South Africa desperately needs strong tertiary education institutions. It is one of the most unequal societies in the world and its economy isn’t growing. Higher education is a social mobility mechanism. In a recent submission to the Fees Commission, I argued that poor and middle class South Africans see higher education, and particularly universities, as the only ladder into the affluent middle class.
Their perception is correct. The World Bank has found that South Africa has the highest private return to tertiary education – that means that getting a degree is a passport to employment. And Van den Berg has found that graduates are three to five times more likely than a school leaver to find a job.
Maintaining and building strong universities needs a combination of two things: better government funding and fee income with affordability funding support for the poor and the lower middle class.
There’s much more to his argument, so if you really want to sink your teeth in you can read his full piece HERE.
I think it’s important that we all remember one thing here – some, not all, but some of these students are protesting for all the right reasons.
To lump the entire #FeesMustFall movement together is to undermine those who want to enact real change, and the way some of the campuses and their private security thugs have treated students points towards a bubbling undercurrent of anger that is truly frightening.
Chances are you’ve seen this video already, but here’s what happened yesterday at Rhodes University up in Grahamstown. Do police really need to use such force, knowing full well the escalation in violence that will follow?
This one comes with a warning that there are some violent scenes – consider yourself warned:
There simply has to be a better way.
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