Can South Africa afford fee-free post-school education?

2016-11-26 06:33

The question of fee-free education has always been a priority of our government. One has to accede though, that today, the fee-free education call is even more important than it probably was in the past, given the current situation in our Post-School Education and Training (PSET) sector. Therefore, this calls every one of us to come together as South Africans who value education to share ideas that will ultimately provide us and the higher education sector in particular with long term solutions we are all looking for. Importantly, we must all applaud the participation of all who continue to make time  to contribute to the current ongoing Presidential Commission of inquiry into higher education and training funding.

There has been a number of platforms outside of the Presidential Commission which continue to afford various voices an opportunity to share opinions and propose solutions; this must be appreciated and we need to continue encouraging more voices to come through as we seek a solution into the matter.

We must not shy away though from the fact that our country has in many areas, including education by the way, made a remarkable progress since the dawn of democracy. South Africa’s democracy has not just restored the dignity of all South Africans, it has also translated into improved access to education and other services.

It really is important that as we question the remarkable progress made by our government today, we also remember where we come from as a country. Indeed, we must all acknowledge that more still needs to be done to change the lives of our people, but certainly, this should not blind us to the successes we have achieved as a country today.

The National Development Plan (NDP), which is a strategic framework produced by the National Planning Commission with the mandate to identify issues affecting the long term development of the country, says it categorically clear that Education, Training and Innovation are central to South Africa’s long-term development. The document goes on to say these are the core elements in eliminating poverty and reducing inequality, and the foundations of an equal society. “Education empowers people to define their identity, take control of their lives, raise healthy families, take part confidently in developing a just society, and play an effective role in politics and governance of their communities;” emphasises the NDP.

The NDP envisages a robust education system covering early childhood development, primary, secondary, tertiary and vocational education as crucial for addressing poverty and inequality and also make recommendations for policy makers on several fronts.

Indeed, the NDP has guided a number of government policies, including the White Paper for Post-School Education and Training, which is also in line with other key national policy documents in the country. For example, the National Growth Plan and the Industrial Policy Action Plan. The White Paper also seeks to set out a vision for the type of Post-School Education and Training we aim to achieve by year 2030. It outlines policy direction to guide the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and institutions for which it is responsible in order to contribute to building a developmental state with a vibrant and a flourishing economy.

According to Statistics South Africa, over 3 million young people in our country are disengaged from education and work. The organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also reports that about one third of those aged 15 – 24, or 3.4 million people, are not formally employed nor in education or training. OECD reports that two million of these young fellows have not finished Grade 12.

Without a doubt, these figures represent a profound challenge for South Africa, and this certainly calls for an economy that is vibrant to respond to such challenges and in particular, amongst other, a constantly responsive education system as envisaged in the White Paper on Post-School Education and Training.

Our government has been on a number of occasions accused of not giving education the priority it deserves. In many instances our education system compared with those in other developing countries such as Cuba; there is nothing wrong with this by the way.

Briefly, let us look at the Cuban education system. In early 2015, Cuba was reported a population of 11, 047, 251. The education system in Cuba is 100% subsidized by the government, meaning that Cuban students at all levels can attend school for free; this is according to the World Bank. The World Bank 2014 Report states that Cuba has the best education system in Latin American and the Caribbean and the only country on the continent to have a high-level teaching faculty. The World Bank reports that Cuba allocates the highest share of its national budget, 13%, to education.

The record of Cuban education is indeed outstanding, and certainly one amongst other countries to benchmark on.

Do we not need to be honest though, with the South African reality and accept that the affordability of higher education in our country given the current economic conditions will be a real challenge?

We can’t take away the fact that economic growth in South Africa has been respectable, but we all have to accede, recent statistics have proven that it has been weaker than in many emerging economies. Statistics South Africa recently reported that South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by 3.3% quarter to quarter in the second quarter of 2016. This is after contrasting by 1.2% in the previous quarter. Statistics South Africa report that the year on year growth was 0.6%. The South African economy has been growing very slowly according to Statistics South Africa, this year’s growth rate tells the same story as the last 3 or 4 years in terms of Gross Domestic Products growth.

However, with all these challenges brought by the slow economic growth, government still has to be commended for continuing making funding available for higher education. Government has always been aware of these challenges and takes them very seriously. We remain firmly committed as government to progressively realise fee-free post-school education for the poor and working class, as called for by our constitution, and to assist middle class families who are unable to pay.

Just this year Higher Education and Training received an additional 18% for 2016/17, with an average annual increase of 9.8% across the Medium Term Expenditure Framework period up until 2018/19. From R42 billion in the 2015/16 financial year, the Department of Higher Education and Training’s budget is set to rise to R53 billion in 2018/19.

This means universities and students will receive an additional R17 billion over the next three years as was announced by the Minister of Finance in the recent Medium Term Budget Policy Statement in Parliament.

The R17 billion includes the R7.6 billion to universities to compensate for the fee freeze for students whose families earn less than R600.000 a year and another R9.2 billion to bolster the NSFAS. The Department of Higher Education and Training has, after extensive consultative process, advised that fee adjustment for the year 2017 cannot go above 8%.

Government has this year provided R1.9 billion of the R2.3 billion shortfall resulting from the subsidisation of the 2016 university fee increase. More than R4.5 billion in the 2016/17 financial year has been reprioritised to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

This contribution by government might not be enough to cover everyone, but it will go a long way in assisting those much needy students.

It is a well-known fact that the main funding sources of higher education are the fiscus-based state subsidy system and the private contribution, in the form of tuition fees and or other sources of funding. Thus, universities depend on three income streams for survival. These are government subsidy, tuition fees and third stream income as derived from corporate and commercial activities, investment and donations. Universities in particular receive state funds in the form of what is called block grants and earmarked grants. Block grants comprise approximately 70% of the total state budget towards universities. They are intended for the operational costs of teaching and learning of universities and are council-controlled funds, which can be used at the discretion of council and university management.

As from 2015/16, it was approved that for many of the earmarked grants, 20% be released to the universities during the first quarter of the Department’s financial year, based on the approved plans for the use of the grants. The 2015/16 and 2016/17 Ministerial Statement on University Funding outlines a more detailed view of the Block and Earmarked grants.

It is this view that gives a clear picture of how universities expend their budgets.

Briefing parliament on the 2015 financial statistics on higher education institutions, the Statistician-General, Pali Lehohla cautioned that we shouldn’t deceive ourselves regards fee-free education.

“There can never be fee-free education, let us not deceive ourselves, rather we should focus on finding a workable model”, he said.

Indeed, differing voices have surfaced regarding fee free education, with some confident of its possibilities and some, not too confident.

It is important though, that as we strive for fee free education for the poor, we tread warily and not rush our decisions.

“If tuition fees dried up, as would be the case if a fee-free higher education policy were to be adopted prematurely, the country could suffer severe consequences”; this is according to Universities South Africa.

Universities South Africa gives the following examples as consequences the country could suffer should fee-free education policy be adopted prematurely.

  • Unavoidable budget cuts could lead to retrenchments.
  • The quality of higher education could be compromised.
  • Research could become compromised and academics demoralised.
  • Universities could curtail their study offerings.

The Heher Commission of inquiry has kicked off the second phase of its public hearings into the feasibility of fee-free higher education in South Africa.

We need to allow the Commission to complete its vitally important task to finally provide its recommendations on this challenge we are facing as a country in the higher education sector.

In the interim, while we wait for the recommendations of this commission, our university system has to continue functioning, producing skills for the country, and empowering young South Africans and students from around the world, particularly in the South African Development Community.

By William Somo – William is a Communication and Media Liaison Officer in the Department of Higher Education and Training. He writes in his personal capacity.

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