Fee-free universities would reduce quality of tertiary education, says CEO

2016-04-13 06:08


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2016-04-13 10:30

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Johannesburg - Making tertiary education free would reduce the quality of education and graduates, Allan Gray Orbis Foundation CEO, Anthony Farr, said on Tuesday.

"Ultimately if fees are free it has an impact of reducing the quantity that we need and ultimately, I would argue, it would reduce the quality," he said.

Farr was part of a panel discussing the Fees Must Fall movement at the Gordon Institute of Business Sciences in Johannesburg alongside University of Witwatersrand vice chancellor, Adam Habib, and University of Pretoria student and secretary general of the Economic Freedom Fighters' student command, Wenzile Madonsela.

Earlier, Habib said tertiary institutions were failing to produce the number of graduates the country and the economy needed to address inequality and poverty in society.

Habib said out of about 1.1 million Grade 1 learners who entered the education system, only about 30 000 ultimately graduated from a university, on time.

Ambitious NDP goals

This was, among other factors, because of the reduction in government subsidies which had caused the institutions to increase their tuition fees to a point where the working and middle classes felt they could not afford to attend university.

He suggested two ways of addressing the problem were either increasing taxes or making tertiary education free.

Farr disagreed with Habib. He said a free tertiary education system would not address the policy requirement outlined in the National Development Plan.

"The challenge with pure free education is that ultimately it cannot achieve the most significant policy requirements of this country.

"The NDP goals are incredibly ambitious and we are not even going to get close [to meeting them].

"We have to double the number of graduates from when it was released, we have to triple the number of PhDs and if you are only getting fees from taxes it is ultimately a limited pool [of funds]," he said.

'Wicked problem'

That would ultimately lead to fewer students than those the institution would have produced through other funding means, he argued.

Constrained resources would ultimately make them regressive, he said. There would also be more competition to fill the limited spaces those universities would have available, Farr said. 

"It's going to be more competitive for those limited places and ultimately those that have had better foundations, that are equipped, not the under-resourced, will be more competitive for those positions."

The issue of retaining students in universities was bigger than just about funding, because even the foundation itself, which currently had 750 students in its system, was having difficulties retaining its own recipients, he said.

"We talk about the wastage in the system and we talk about the 30 000 out of a million that start this journey and we think that there are simple solutions but there are not... This is a wicked problem, particularly given the history of our country, the foundations that we are building on."

He said the Fees Must Fall had been a catalyst, a good "wake up call" to the depth and the realities around issues of power, privilege and pain.

Read more on:    wenzile madonsela  |  adam habib  |  education  |  university fees

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