Funding free education for all

2019-02-20 06:00

CAMPUSES have been brought to a standstill by students protesting against a host of issues that have plagued the country’s universities.

These include registration fees, student accommodation, food and other issues, compounded by the inefficiency of the country’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

The protests and the employment of private security on campuses appallingly led to the death of a student, and have once again brought the problems besetting higher education to the fore. But the situation was entirely predictable. In the wake of nationwide campus protests from 2015 to 2017, former president Jacob Zuma’s administration opportunistically extended funding for tertiary education to a broader cohort of students. This didn’t resolve the government’s flawed approach to the students’ demand for free higher education.

It was inevitable that the promise of “free education” would come back to haunt the government. That’s because leaders fail to understand what’s really at stake in the demands for genuinely free quality education for all. University administrations expected NSFAS to solve the problem of affordability.

But the scheme has experienced a succession of bureaucratic problems, which led to the rejection of tens of thousands of financial aid student applicants. This, in turn, has sparked widespread protests and campus shutdowns. The government could have taken another route by adopting the carefully researched suggestions that academics, civil society and others made to entrench the right to education as a public good.

A senior department official was quoted as saying: “Despite the daily support of departmental officials and support teams, NSFAS was not able to put in place adequate solutions to address the problems coherently and quickly.”

It needn’t be this way. We’ve always argued that free higher education for all is not only desirable, but possible. In our submission to the Heher Commission — instituted by government to advise it on tertiary student funding — we set out a number of recommendations. But these have been ignored. We focused on issues related to the role of higher education as a public good and vehicle for social transformation.

Our view is that public universities are society’s key institutions for developing knowledge through their role in research and teaching. The institutions contribute to social, economic, cultural and intellectual development. But for this to happen there needs to be an enabling environment. This includes decent accommodation and food for students as well as financial, infrastructural and intellectual resources. We argue that free higher education is not an end in itself. Rather, it’s essential for the achievement of the social, political, cultural and transformative goals of a society characterised by the legacies of racist oppression and exploitation.

We argue for the following.

Stopping the outflow of capital. In the past 18 months alone, R350 billion has left South Africa. From 2002 to 2011, illicit outflows have been estimated at about R1,4 trillion by the organisation Global Financial Integrity. The state has the potential, if it has the will, to stop these levels of outflow. This would provide it with sufficient funds to support free higher education for all. Although individuals will not be equal when education is made free, our approach is dedicated to ending the culture of corporatism that still dominates the university system. The present situation, where thousands of students are turned away while others are drowning in debt, is untenable. University management should make common cause with students and pressurise the state instead of relying on charity, band-aid solutions or worse, the violence of private security.

The state’s continued indecisiveness and unwillingness to engage with carefully researched proposals from those within the higher education sector do not bode well for change. Using NSFAS to mediate this crisis will fail and deepen social conflict. — The Conversation.

• Salim Vally, director of the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation and associate professor of education, University of Johannesburg; Enver Motala, researcher, social sciences, University of Fort Hare; Mondli Hlatshwayo, senior researcher in labour studies and education, UJ; and Siphelo Ngcwangu, senior lecturer, sociology, UJ.

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