Lotto has the lolly we need

2018-01-07 06:12
Students of both the University of Technology in the Free State and the University of the Free State join forces as part of the 2016 #FeesMustFall campaign. Picture: Mlungisi Louw / Nuus Sentraal

Students of both the University of Technology in the Free State and the University of the Free State join forces as part of the 2016 #FeesMustFall campaign. Picture: Mlungisi Louw / Nuus Sentraal

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We are a country of many contradictions.

We are often vociferous in our criticism of the shortcomings of the public service, calling for urgent action to be taken – only to cast aspersions on it once a favourable decision has been made in response to those calls.

The reaction to President Jacob Zuma’s December announcement that government would be providing free tertiary education this year is a case in point.

Since 2015, students at universities countrywide have been embroiled in #FeesMustFall protest campaigns, calling for fee-free higher education and the eradication of the financial, racial and class barriers that have, for years, prevented young and aspiring South Africans from gaining access to tertiary institutions.

Enter Zuma and his mysteriously timed announcement, granting this wish for free education to thousands of the country’s students, and all hell breaks loose.

Many people have been highly critical of this decision, stating that, given the country’s dire financial state, it is impossible to implement.

Naysayers included Banking Association SA, which said the plan would amount to “nothing less than a further empty promise and another failed delivery”, while the DA bemoaned the decision as being “nothing more than reckless politicking”.

There are many such complainants denouncing this plan that so many others were demanding so fiercely.

It reminds me of the time, not too long ago, when another milestone public service project was announced: the rapid transport railway system that we have come to know as the Gautrain.

At the time, it was the largest budgetary allocation made by government to a public transport project. It was also met with howls of protest.

Twelve years down the line, the success of the Gautrain is self-evident.

We need to start building on such successes instead of being so quick to slate them.

Rightly or wrongly, there will always be naysayers when it comes to the initiation of ground-breaking programmes geared at uplifting the lives of ordinary South Africans.

Valid as some of their points may be, entertaining these critics can only lead to a development paralysis.

We need to start adopting a mind-set where, instead of highlighting only the challenges inherent in proposed solutions, we simultaneously start to look for ways to make them possible and workable.

This applies to Zuma’s decision to eradicate barriers to tertiary education for the poor.

A nation’s greatest asset is its people. It is a travesty that, in our post-apartheid constitutional democracy, only 5% of the country’s coloured and African populations obtain a bachelor’s degree.

We should take the example set by countries such as Japan and South Korea.

They have invested in their citizens to such an extent that, even though they have a dearth of natural resources, their human resources more than make up for this.

Japan is the world’s third-largest economy, while Korea comes in at a respectable number 12. And both countries have invested heavily in their education.

South Korea spends more of its gross domestic product on education than any other country except the US, while Japan prioritises education to such an extent that 50% of its working-age population has a tertiary qualification.

This percentage is higher than that of the EU (26%) and the US (41%), according to the World Economic Forum.

Tackling our education conundrum

So, how do we begin to tackle our education conundrum here in South Africa? How do we begin to cultivate a more educated populace, given our existing budgetary constraints?

The first step is to acknowledge that this cannot be done by relying on our already overburdened tax base, which is constitutionally obliged to support demands for growth in other services.

Options must be found.

The first thought that comes to mind when I start to dream up such alternatives is how much funding a reduction in the country’s wasteful expenditure would free up for education.

Irregular expenditure by government departments and state-owned entities stood at just over R45bn in the 2016/17 financial year – up from almost R30bn in 2013/2014.

Reducing this by even just half would help to fund all of the financial obligations presented by the announcement that fees are to fall – an estimated additional R12bn to the education bill.

However, eliminating wasteful expenditure continues to be an uphill battle and solutions are needed now. What, then, are some of the other options?

One tangible alternative that is uppermost among those occupying my mind is the national lottery.

Having done my tertiary studies in Texas in the US, I have seen first hand how compelling the lottery games can be as an alternative revenue source.

At the time, Texas had no state income tax, and tax revenues from the oil and gas industries had been declining drastically over the years, forcing the state to pursue other potential revenue streams.

The lottery games became their means of supplementing their revenue sources, particularly for education.

Many other US states, including Massachusetts and Kentucky, have followed suit.

The Kentucky lottery contributed R3.1bn towards education during the 2016 financial year alone.

According to the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority, the awarding of lottery-funded scholarships and grants for university study has helped to increase the number of Kentuckians with college degrees and created a better educated workforce.

A similar case of university funding using lottery revenues in Argentina is closer to my heart.

Having suffered from heart problems last year, I was referred to an outstanding cardiologist.

He told me that he had been one of the beneficiaries of a cardiology programme in his country, sponsored by revenues derived from its national lottery.

Being in a much healthier situation now, I cannot help but laud the significance of such programmes.

Argentina has more than 5 000 registered cardiologists these days, as opposed to South Africa’s paltry 200.

Our national lottery rakes in revenue of up to R7bn each year, and between 27% and 35% – or up to almost R2bn – of this revenue goes towards good causes.

These causes range from football clubs, dance groups and schools to charities and arts festivals countrywide.

Although some of these causes are arguably well deserving of this funding, I believe the country would be better served by refocusing the funds and allocating the bulk of them towards tertiary education.

Doing so would bode well for South Africa’s youth, for the country’s future prospects and for consumers’ attitudes towards, and perceptions of, the national lottery.

This refocus can also help the lottery gain the support of new players, who would endorse the notion of lottery funds being funnelled directly into education.

In this way, it can speak to South Africans’ desire to do right by their fellow citizens and make a difference.

Another effect could be lottery revenue increasing, or, at the very least, critics of this form of gambling rethinking their aversion.

Either way, promoting our lottery as a critical source of revenue for education can only be good for our country as it will help to offset the large cost of education to taxpayers.

So, as we wait for Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba to provide details in his upcoming budget speech of where the funding for this free education will come from, we need to remember that many people petitioned for this.

Now that it has finally been declared a reality, we need to find ways to make it work for a better South Africa.

Mtshali is chairperson of Galela Telecoms, a provider of free Wi-Fi to students, teachers and nurses in South Africa

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Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  education  |  fees must fall

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