Guest Column

Public support crucial if free higher education is to succeed

2018-03-09 08:50
Academics protest on the steps of Wits University in support of students who are against the university. (Picture: Leon Sadiki)

Academics protest on the steps of Wits University in support of students who are against the university. (Picture: Leon Sadiki)

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Cheryl de la Rey

The word "university" encapsulates a diversity of institutions, including those dedicated almost entirely to professional and vocational education, and training as well as those which continue the tradition of intellectual pursuit organised by disciplines.

A common thread, however, is that universities are institutions that are both transforming (themselves), and transformative at multiple levels. There are at least five ways in which universities are transformative:

Firstly, universities transform the lives of individuals by providing access to an education that will significantly improve the life outcomes of those who graduate. At 8.7%, graduate unemployment in South Africa is much lower than many other countries globally.

For people with non-degree tertiary education, unemployment is about 19.4%, for Grade 12 school leavers 36% and for those with fewer than 12 years of schooling, 43.2%, according to the most recent Labour Force Survey conducted by Statistics SA. In short, the statistics show that a university degree significantly increases likelihood of employment.

Secondly, this has a multiplier effect in communities. The first to graduate in a family is able to earn an income that has a ripple effect, frequently through contributions to household income and funding the education of siblings, and extended family members.

Thirdly, universities conduct research that leads to innovation in products, services and technologies. Recently, the University of Pretoria has been able to spin out two companies, including Mabu Casing Soils, which has more than 30 employees.

Researchers used sugar cane bagasse (fibrous remnants that remain after sugar cane is crushed), to develop mushroom casing soil that is a suitable replacement for imported peat soil. Mabu now supplies this casing soil to more than 10 mushroom farms, with patents filed in seven countries. This company, and its related jobs and intellectual property, would not exist without the research environment created by UP.

Fourthly, universities themselves are micro-economies. In 2016, the combined activities of UP (direct and indirect) generated R17.2bn gross value added (GVA). That same year, more than 20 000 formal sector jobs were supported by UP activities, with government collecting R2.3bn more in taxes, and workers receiving an additional R9.9bn because of UP activities, than would otherwise have been the case.

Fifthly, universities are sites of critical inquiry and intellectual engagement. Universities are ultimately about the pursuit of knowledge. Without the freedom to question, to critique and to imagine, our ability to engage as citizens in debates concerning our national priorities is severely limited. This freedom of expression is important in and of itself.

In short, universities are essential institutional pillars in successful modern democracies. This then begs the question of funding: Who must pay?

The University of Pretoria is now 110 years old. For most of its existence, a state subsidy covered the greater proportion of the annual operating budget. Over time, the contribution from state subsidy declined and tuition fees increased. For the sector as a whole, student fees increased as a percentage of total income from 24% in 200 to 33% in 2013. During the same period, the proportion of income from state subsidy declined from 49% to 40%. This came to a head in 2015 with the national #FeesMustFall protests. Since then the de facto position is that fees have been capped.

In mid-December 2017 President Jacob Zuma announced free higher education for the poor – students from households with an annual income of up to R350 000. Also announced was that the state contribution to higher education would be increased to 1% of GDP. This is laudable in that it enhances access for financially poor but academically eligible students.

Universities have already seen higher than usual registrations this year, but at the current time there are real concerns about affordability and sustainability, as well as the ability to roll out this system. The 2018 national budget has made provision for this, at a cost of R57bn, showing that this is high priority even as overall government spending drops.

South Africa is not the only country to grapple with these issues. In another part of the world, New Zealand, under a newly-elected Labour Party prime minister, announced that it would roll out free tertiary education from 2018. The policy will eventually grant three full years of tertiary education to anyone not previously enrolled in tertiary education. The idea is that the government would transfer funding to universities based on enrolment figures. In this national context too, there are concerns about sustainability.

Inevitability this leads to funding cuts for universities. The vice-chancellor of Auckland University Stuart McCutcheon, stated: "It has certainly been our experience that when governments set out to be more generous to students they compensate for that by being less generous to universities." Indeed, this has been the experience in African universities and in many developing countries. The consequence is a decline in quality and research.

When public universities are perceived as declining, typically there is a rapid growth in private institutions. South Africa is already experiencing this. Private institutions certainly serve a need, but they cannot substitute for well-run, adequately resourced public tertiary education, which provides the broader public goods I have outlined above.

Public support for public universities is crucial to our future. Public universities have the unique opportunity to create a space that fosters both public and social good in ways that contribute to the vision that shaped our Constitution.

It is a singular space which can harness our capacity in all our diversity to acknowledge and take account of each other and in the process show respect and sometimes understanding. SA universities are challenged to become spaces where diverse and discordant views can be exchanged, debated and live together respectfully. But at the same time, we need the support of the fiscus, as well as the public at large, to live out this mission.

- Prof Cheryl de la Rey is vice-Chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    education  |  university fees  |  feesmustfall
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