South Africa and the illusion of free higher education

Demands for free higher education and other social services such as health and basic education in Africa date back to the 1960s. These demands were common across countries with diverse ideological orientations – from socialist Mozambique and Tanzania to capitalist Kenya and Uganda.

The justifications for free higher education were varied, namely to expedite indigenous person-power formation and achieve equity of access. Free higher education policies were also politically important as compensatory legitimation strategies. As is the case with other compensatory legitimation strategies, free higher education is highly visible and populist, and encourages the perception that the state is providing something people want (Hughes 1994).

Free higher education probably achieved several of its intended goals – mainly an expedited production of skilled individuals, especially for the civil service and secondary school teachers. However, it also had a number of ‘unintended’ consequences, some of which later led to the crises that defined the African university from around the late 1970s.

Gross inequities engendered

One of the unintended consequences is that free higher education engendered gross inequities. It reproduced and reinforced colonial and post-colonial inequities with regard to distribution of schools and privilege, and therefore of the beneficiaries of free higher education.

As is well known, the distribution of (good quality) schools in both the colonial and post-colonial eras was, and remains, uneven in most African countries. It was the children of the new political and business elite who mostly gained access to the free education.

Another equity-related concern is that whereas higher education was free, lower levels of education (especially secondary education) were not always free. As a result, many students who could not afford education at the lower levels were left out of higher education.

Later, as the quality of public education declined, children of the elite left public schools for high-cost and, in some cases, exclusive private schools, only to re-appear for public university education in prestigious programmes – for free. This is also the case in countries like Brazil, one of the champions of reproducing social inequalities through its educational system.

As higher education systems in Africa expanded, provision of free higher education became increasingly expensive and unaffordable, compounded by a sustained decline in economic growth from the mid-1970s until the 1990s. This had severe implications for, among others, social provisioning, including higher education.

Notwithstanding the strained economic growth vis-à-vis the high cost of providing free higher education, the policy persisted, leading to gross underfunding of higher education systems in Africa. The gross underfunding had multiple deleterious consequences, some of which continue to hound higher education systems on the continent.

Overall, free higher education in Africa was built on inequitable social structures. As a result, it reproduced and reinforced these inequalities. To state the obvious, free higher education in highly unequal societies mainly benefits the already-privileged, who have the significant social, cultural and economic capital required to access, participate and succeed in education.

Equally, free higher education was an expensive project that the poor political economies could hardly afford in the long run. As enrolments grew, more resources were required to support a meaningful university experience. These resources were simply not available.

Consequently, free higher education eventually spawned ideal conditions for prolonged protests and mediocre higher education (Wangenge-Ouma 2012).

‘Fees Must Fall’ in South Africa

Many countries that once offered free higher education such as China, Australia, Mozambique, Kenya and England, have since implemented cost-sharing policies and models of one form or another.

Kenya, for example, introduced direct payment of tuition fees in 1991 and abolished all personal allowances that university students had hitherto been enjoying. This was followed in the late 1990s by the so-called dual-track tuition fee approach whereby universities enrolled two types of students: highly state-subsidised students selected on a numerus clausus basis, and a second group of ‘unsubsidised’ students who paid market-related fees.

In South Africa, students are demanding free higher education. While some students are demanding free education for the poor, the majority seem to want free higher education for all.

The affordability of higher education in South Africa is a real challenge: state funding for higher education has been declining in real terms (1.1% from 2000 to 2012), while the proportion of gross domestic product going to higher education has remained around 0.7%, which is low by international standards.

However if the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, contribution is included, then the government contribution is well over 1%, but there is still not enough funding even with fees.

Universities have been increasing tuition fees to mitigate shortfalls and related vulnerabilities. On the other hand, the NSFAS is unable to provide financial support to all the deserving poor – families with an income below R130,000 (US$8,500). Outstanding debt for universities is estimated at around R5 billion (US$329 million), while for NSFAS it is over R15 billion.

Students are frustrated by the increasing costs of higher education in the context of inadequate financial aid. From a financial perspective these are very legitimate concerns.

But students have also argued that charging fees is against the spirit of the Freedom Charter of 1955, which was a political aspiration expressed 60 years ago along with other demands such as the ending of apartheid, and health and housing. These political aspirations were not formulated in the context of political, economic and educational realities in South Africa in 2016.

The case for free higher education is based on two main premises: (a) social justice: increasing higher education access for the poor, especially previously marginalised communities, in the face of increasing tuition fees, and (b) growth externalities.

Given South Africa’s high levels of skills shortages, free higher education is deemed necessary to get human capital investment to efficient levels. These premises are exactly the same ones that informed the free higher education experiment in other African countries.

Furthermore, the purchase of legitimation cannot be ruled out as a significant rationale for the push for free higher education, especially by politicians.

The post-apartheid era is characterised by huge expectations and, in the context of high youth unemployment and a lack of alternative post-secondary opportunities, higher education has become a very crowded but narrow ladder of opportunity into the middle-class.

Given general dissatisfaction with the present tuition fee regimes vis-à-vis the higher education participation inequalities in the country, a policy of free higher education is a potentially useful strategy for compensatory legitimation by a government whose ‘core’ constituency is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with service delivery.

On the face of it, a policy of free higher education would be consistent with the country’s overarching post-apartheid policy of transformation and social justice.

Will free higher education be the harbinger for an egalitarian South Africa?


Patrício Langa grew up in Mozambique, a country that once attempted to establish a socialist regime. That was after many years of oppression under a colonial regime that excluded the majority of the black population from accessing the welfares of modernity: education, health, and social and political rights.

The socialist regime of FRELIMO – the party that led the struggle for liberation – promised to build an equal, just, non-racial and non-sexist society. A popular belief was that the country’s limited resources would be shared equally by all.

This dream became an illusion. Inequalities increased. The most vocal advocates of Marxist egalitarian principles were, in fact, the frontrunners in becoming the new bourgeoisie. Since then, the promises of modernity have been deferred for the majority of the population.

Education was among the public goods that was supposed to be free for all. This was the case for a number of years.

However, most Mozambicans had to contend with poor quality schools and many others had no schools at all, while the elite took their children to exclusive schools. With low participation rates coupled with high internal inefficiencies in primary and secondary education, only a few – many of them from elite backgrounds – made it to university.

Up until the mid-1990s, the higher education participation rate was less than 1% and currently it stands at less than 6%, a far cry from FRELIMO’s dream of building an equal society with access for all. Most knowledge economies are aiming for a participation rate above 50%.

Higher education is an expensive enterprise and free higher education even more so. To support free higher education, Mozambique relied on its own meagre resources and also received support from, especially, the former socialist block. These countries, mainly from Eastern Europe and Latin America, funded and supported education programmes.

But no country can educate its people solely relying on international solidarity and limited state resources, particularly when the latter are derived from an underperforming economy.


Gerald Wangenge-Ouma went to school and university in Kenya. From 1963 to 1992, Kenya experimented with free higher education, with the public purse covering tuition and student living allowances, pedagogical and research infrastructure, buildings and staff costs.

As with Mozambique, free provision was seen as the surest way for the state to guarantee equality of opportunity.

Not unlike Mozambique, free higher education in Kenya was also built on inequitable social structures, the result of which was reproduction and reinforcement of these inequalities. For instance, the distribution of (good quality) schools and participation rates were uneven – a reflection of skewed missionary and colonial education patterns.

By way of example, almost 100% of children in former Central Province attend primary school, compared to about 34% in former North Eastern Province. In addition, schools serving working class students, especially in rural areas and poor urban enclaves, receive fewer resources, struggle to attract and retain qualified teachers, are not adequately supported by the school community, and are rarely inspected for quality.

While higher education was free, secondary education was not, yet it was a pre-requisite for university admission. Mainly because of cost-related factors and the uneven distribution of schools, the transition rate from primary to secondary education was very low.

As reported by Oketch and Somerset (2010), in the 1970s only about 14% of pupils sitting the primary school leaving examination performed well enough to gain a place at a government-maintained secondary school. For more than two-thirds of pupils, primary education was terminal in their education.

Regarding funding, the public purse covered all costs related to university education, as well as allowances to students to make them comfortable. Given the low number of students, free higher education was probably affordable. In 1964, Kenya had 571 university students – undergraduate, postgraduate and diploma students.

By 1980, the number was 5,411. Around the mid-1980s, enrolments started to grow fast and by 1990 student enrolments stood at 26,092. While enrolments were growing, the economy was declining and universities were severely underfunded, with the result that Kenyan universities essentially ceased to exist as vibrant knowledge institutions.

The experiences with free higher education of Mozambique and Kenya capture the dream of many African countries of establishing not only modern political economies, but also a just social order with equal opportunities.

The rationale for free higher education was understandable given the post-colonial welfare-dominated context of the time, but the outcomes had not been as anticipated.


Germany is frequently referred to as an example of a tuition-free higher education system. In the mid-2000s, it underwent its own tuition fee experiment when several of the Bundesländer, or federal states – which were at that time governed by a Christian Democrat-Liberal coalition – introduced tuition fees in the region of €1,000 (US$1,100) per year.

Following massive student protests, and in several states a change in government to Social Democratic and Green coalitions, all states abolished tuition fees once again. However, in most cases the governments made sure that universities were compensated for their loss in income by temporarily increasing public higher education funding.

Additionally, and in a separate policy process, the states and the federal government agreed on a set of pacts designed to increase the number of study places by providing additional resources to higher education institutions.

Two more characteristics of the German system also need to be pointed out to properly frame the comparison with South Africa.

Firstly, compared to other OECD countries Germany has a rather low participation rate in higher education. This is mainly owing to an extensive and successful vocational education and training system, which provides a viable alternative to higher education and allows for comparatively high lifetime earnings (Busemeyer 2015).

Secondly, while the German higher education system more or less maintained its principle of tuition-free higher education, it is also characterised by a decreased level of student grants and loans during the last decades. Compared to the level of student support during the early 1970s when the system underwent a phase of significant expansion, today’s support system is much more limited, making higher education less inclusive (Garritzmann, forthcoming and 2015).

While some countries like Germany and Norway have maintained a tuition-free higher education regime, comparing these countries to South Africa is highly problematic.

Germany and Norway have achieved universal access to primary and secondary education of good quality, their income tax regimes are among the most exacting in the world – 45% in Germany and 55% in Norway – and they have among the most advanced economies in the world.

Learn from Africa

It is not the norm for South Africa to make comparisons with or draw lessons from other African countries. The established practice is to look to the global North – the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany and of late, the other BRICS countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

But with regard to free higher education, South Africa should look to its northern neighbours for lessons and pitfalls to avoid. Free higher education has not in Africa addressed the challenge of universalising access to higher education nor the realisation of social inclusion.

Patrício V Langa is associate professor of higher education studies in South Africa and Mozambique; Gerald Wangenge-Ouma is the director of institutional planning at the University of Pretoria in South Africa; Jens Jungblut is a post-doc researcher for INCHER – the International Centre for Higher Education Research – in Kassel, Germany; and Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust and coordinator of the Higher Education Research and Advocacy Network in Africa, HERANA.

* Photo credit: @syndicalisms via Twitter

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