OPINION | Why is access to quality education in SA still a privilege?

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Access to quality education isn’t merit-based, and in practical terms it isn’t a human right in South Africa; it is a privilege, say Sifiso Skenjana & Shaneel Bachoo.


The last month has seen a flurry of headlines pertaining to strikes by prospect and current higher education students for the removal of finance or affordability based constraints to access to higher education.

In addition, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has also dominated headlines regarding its financial woes and its intention to limit the financial support to certain clusters of students. The notion of privilege, 27 years into democracy, remains a phenomenon that continues to be structurally determined and inadvertently institutionalised where movements like #FeesMustFall again become reminders that access to quality education isn’t merit-based, and in practical terms it isn’t a human right in South Africa; it is a privilege.

The 2019 Social Progress Index correlational analysis of six years of outcomes-based provincial data pertaining to the youth supports the view that young people from underprivileged backgrounds are far less likely to even enrol for tertiary education and that the inequality among students has its roots far earlier in the human development journey. The report finds that enrolment of youth at tertiary institutions was:

  • Positively correlated with school internet connectivity (0.88);
  • Negative correlated with the extent of dependency on schools for nutrition (food) (-0.93);
  • Positively correlated with access to acceptable water (0.86) and sanitation services (0.83); and
  • Negatively correlated with household dependency on social grants as an income source. (-0.89). 

Robert Haveman and Timothy Smeeding in their 2007 paper The Role of Higher Education in Social Mobility find that only 22% of children from lower-income homes were able to attend higher education institutions while 71% from higher income were able to attend.

They propose the development of financing structures that are aimed at increasing access to higher education for low- and middle-income families as a critical enabler for unlocking the social mobility value that higher education attainment presents.

In fact, Malcolm Kewsell and Laura Poswell in their 2004 paper Returns to Education in South Africa: A Retrospective Sensitivity Analysis of the Available Evidence find that returns to education are highest with tertiary education and lowest with primary – suggesting a convex profile to the marginal return profile of access to education in the country.

Many of those who are less privileged aspire for a better life but continue to face exclusion in spite of their efforts. The recent student protests serve as a reminder of this phenomenon. For example, students were expected to attend online classes, but not all of them have access to broadband internet and mobile data, as we know, is expensive. And despite efforts to support some of the learners with laptops and data bundles, local IT infrastructure in their rural and peri-urban homes makes connectivity and ongoing challenge in their online academic experience.

Understanding student unrest and making genuine efforts to respond must begin at the level of understanding the multidimensional nature of the poverty that they experience. Whilst necessary in the short term, a sustainable response cannot be one that is confined to the realm of higher education, since such an intervention can be likened to the act of applying pressure to the area of a bullet wound to avoid blood loss – there is a deeper problem that has to be attended to with the same level of urgency.

A sustainable response is one that ensures that students aren't facing multidimensional poverty even before they register, as is currently the reality for many young people.

Evidence from our analysis of publicly available data suggests that improvements in ICT infrastructure modernisation and increasing funding commitments are necessary prerequisites towards the reduction of poverty and increasing of social mobility through the economic opportunities that access to higher education provides for young South African hopefuls. Exclude them for any other reason, but not because they are poor. 

Authors: Sifiso Skenjana, chief economist, IQbusiness, and Shaneel Bachoo, senior research manager, IQbusiness. 

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