‘Free higher education requires funds and political will’

The concept of #FeesMustFall and the notion that South African higher education should be provided without cost to students has substantial merit in the current environment, but also calls on the government to institute a clear funding model backed by the political will to implement it.

Feruzi Ngwamba, University of KwaZulu-Natal academic development officer for the School of Social Sciences, told the UKZN Higher Education Teaching and Learning conference held in Durban in late September that one of the long-term goals of the National Plan for Higher Education was expanding student admissions from 15-20% to 20-24% over a 15-year period.

However, the Department of Higher Education and Training did not correspondingly institute a sustainable funding strategy, instead relying wholly on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme or NSFAS.

In 2011 South Africa’s state budget for universities, including NSFAS funding, was only 0.75% of the gross domestic product or GDP. This was less than Africa as a whole (0.78%), yet by 2015-16, South Africa’s budget allocation had dropped to 0.72% of GDP.

“Although South Africa spends a considerable amount on education, its expenditure on higher education is lower than desirable, as the current financial stresses being felt in the sector show, both at the level of university operations and at the level of student funding. Consequently, students have to pay fees,” Ngwamba said.

However, the student-led #FeesMustFall campaign generated high levels of international solidarity and revealed intense student frustration over the funding crisis. The South African Union of Students argued for free education based on the poor background of many students, increasing student debt levels (also called ‘black debt’), social justice and transformation imperatives, the need for higher black student enrolment, and the need for skilled youth for the country’s economic development.

The country is currently awaiting the findings of a commission looking into the feasibility of free higher education. The report was handed to President Jacob Zuma at the end of August.

While free education would make a contribution to skills development, Ngwamba cautioned that underlining South Africa’s higher education system was the free market concept of supply and demand. This means as demand for education climbs, the supply thereof becomes increasingly scarce and the price rises.

Calling for free higher education in this environment was unrealistic, he said, as the education is not free; it is simply not paid for by the students themselves.

“Neoliberalism has diluted the universities’ non-profit status as university presidents are told to emulate successful corporate CEOs, even though the universities are neither expected to earn a profit nor obligated to maximise returns to their stock holders … These [factors] have commodified the knowledge production process and students have become the consumers,” he said.

Ngwamba said in order to counter the effects of the market, the South Africa government had to be committed to funding higher education and develop policies which outlined more clearly the government’s role in the market. “Currently, this is not the case,” he said.