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No-fee universities will not serve us well by Nasima Badsha (BDlive), 05 October 2016

6 October 2016

THE South African higher education system, despite all the challenges that it faces, remains the envy of the African continent. Of the 16 founder members of the recently established African Research Universities Alliance, six are from SA.

Our universities attract students from across the globe and, in particular, from the Southern African Development Community. In 2013, 53,800 students from the region were studying at South African universities, with a further 11,922 coming from elsewhere in Africa.

They come to SA to obtain qualifications that are internationally portable and that equip graduates to contribute to the social and economic development of their home countries.

There is ample evidence that SA’s universities have served the nation well in the past two decades. No doubt, there are shortcomings, some glaring, and the pace of transformation has been slower than we might have wished for.

More than 80% of students in higher education are black and almost 60% are women. For the increasing numbers of first-generation graduates entering the world of work each year, the opportunities that come with a higher education qualification are life-changing for themselves and their families. This is not something that should be brushed aside.

Despite state funding for higher education not keeping up with the growth of the system, there has been considerable investment in institutional recapitalisation and in new infrastructure across the system, including student accommodation and two new universities.

A former "bush" college, the University of the Western Cape, has been rated by the journal Nature as the top African university in the physical sciences, in some measure due to the university’s involvement in the Square Kilometre Array initiative, deemed one of the largest scientific endeavours of the 21st century.

STUDENT throughput rates are still unacceptably poor and much needs to be done to improve the performance of the system. Student access is not a panacea and must be matched with opportunities for academic success.

Open and distance learning opportunities have yet to live up to expectations in meeting the needs of a massifying system. Curriculum reform has also been slow, although within the framework of institutional autonomy and academic freedom that governs higher education, this poses a challenge to academic staff and institutional leaders as change is not, in the main, constrained by external or legislative barriers.

There is no magic wand that will unleash transformed and decolonised curricula. This transformation project should be nurtured by the new generation of academic staff.

Given the slow pace of growth of the college sector and its apparent inability to provide sufficient post-school opportunities until now, universities have provided the main pathway into further learning for school leavers. This has added to the pressures on an already stretched system.

These strengths of the higher education system may well be eroded if not protected and strengthened for future generations.

SA’s universities have turned into battlegrounds. The latest crisis was precipitated by an announcement by Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande. It followed extensive consultations with a wide range of stakeholders and proposed for 2017, pending the recommendations of the presidential commission set up to advise on the feasibility of free higher education, that universities set their own increases, but these must be limited to 8%. The government will pay the full increase for students receiving support from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and all those from families with income below R600,000 a year.

The minister’s concession is quite remarkable as it means that almost 80% of all students will not have to directly meet the annual increase and will pay fees essentially pegged at 2015 levels (given there was no increase in 2016).

While welcomed by many, this announcement was rejected by some student factions who instead took up the cudgels on behalf of the rich! This is unfathomable in a country with one of the highest levels of inequality in the world. It beggars belief that anybody would argue for wealthy South Africans to be (further) subsidised by the public purse.

The plight of students from poor families and the so-called missing middles must be tackled as a matter of urgency. No student who has the academic ability to benefit from higher education should be denied access because of their inability to pay fees and meet living expenses.

This can be achieved through the expansion of the NSFAS to meet the comprehensive needs of the poor and missing middles through a combination of loans and bursaries, with loan repayments kicking in only when students are employed and earning above a stipulated minimum income.

IN SUCH a scheme, the government carries the risk of the debt incurred by students who either fail to graduate or to obtain employment commensurate with their qualifications. The NSFAS, despite the difficulties it has faced, has been an extremely important and successful vehicle for redress. It needs to be expanded and put back on track.

While it may well be possible to find the billions of rand that would be required if there were to be fee-free higher education in 2017, it is not a call that I can support either for now or in the medium or foreseeable future for several reasons:

Higher education brings both public and private benefits. It has been estimated that the private benefits accruing to South African graduates are higher than anywhere else in the world. Graduates have far higher earning powers than those without university qualifications;

If additional money is to be found from the public purse for free higher education, it will come at huge cost and hard choices will have to be made. Are the trade-offs justified in a country such as SA, with unacceptable levels of poverty and growing inequality? Can free higher education be justified while preschool education is not free or even freely accessible, while large numbers of girls miss out on school every month because their families cannot afford sanitary towels and disabled children languish at home without access to proper facilities?

The National Health Insurance scheme is long overdue and unlikely to be realised if additional resources are channelled to defray the shortfall in higher education fees. Similarly, the expansion and strengthening of the post-school college sector would be set back;

Universities are already underfunded. The government subsidy has not kept abreast of enrolment growth or real cost increases. If universities lose their ability to generate fee income, deficits will mount, with an inevitable decline in capacity for teaching and knowledge production.

It is also highly unlikely that the government will be able to sustain current levels of funding. This has been the experience elsewhere on the continent — free higher education has not been sustained, especially in the light of increased pressure for access. This has led to dual tracks in terms of which governments have allowed universities to admit private fee-paying students.

Elsewhere in the global South, free higher education has not served the poor well. In Brazil, for example, the poor majority who cannot be accommodated in the prestigious public universities attend private institutions of dubious quality.

India’s higher education system may have at its pinnacle prestigious institutes of technology, but for the rest, public universities are underfunded and increasingly facing onslaughts on institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Free higher education works in wealthy societies such as the Nordic countries, but comparisons are futile.

Those who argue for free higher education are driven by concerns for social justice, but I doubt whether their goals can be achieved within the constraints of SA’s current political and economic strictures.

It requires entirely different approaches to determining national priorities and these cannot be confined to the higher education sector. It has to be driven by a much broader debate and process of societal engagement, but one that should not hold higher education hostage.

Badsha is CEO of the Cape Higher Education Consortium and former deputy director-general in the Department of Education