Fees will fall if Capitalism falls

2015-10-22 18:31

The current unjustified fee regimes of higher education institutions are only a reflection of an untransformed economy and society that views higher education as nothing more than a commodity.

It is the commodification of higher education that has led to exorbitant fee increments becoming the norm and higher education becoming unaffordable to the poor. If we are to address the causes and not the symptoms of the challenges in higher education we should transform the current capitalist accumulation path into a more equitable socialist developmental path. To protest against fee increments is to protest against the evils of capitalism. Instead of blaming individuals, we should look more closely at the system that produces and reproduces the inequalities in higher education and the unjustified fee increments year on end.

Blaming University Councils and Vice Chancellors will not solve the problem. Blaming the Minister of Higher Education and Training will not solve the problem. We should blame the monstrous and exploitative capitalist system for sowing the seeds of fee increments that has left so many capable youth from poor households without a decent education. Capitalism is to blame for the poverty, inequality, joblessness and the exorbitant cost of education and higher education that we experience today. Thus if Capitalism falls, fees will fall and we shall subsequently realise the ideal of free, quality, higher education for all.

Education and higher education in particular should be treated as a right and not a privilege. In the age of knowledge and information it becomes a necessity for any young person to crave a quality education for their own progress and development. To deny young people the right to higher education is to deny our youth the prospect of a brighter future free from the chains of poverty and inequality. Every year universities choose to increase their fees by more than the consumer price inflation rate resulting in higher education inflation far outstripping general inflation. Why is this the case?

Universities have often attributed their 'higher-than-general-inflation' fee increases to other factors that constitute part of their own 'internal' inflation rates. This they describe as the costs associated with staff salaries, maintenance of resources and facilities such as libraries as well as expenditure related to changes in the dollar and exchange rate. The mixed revenue base of many universities means that revenue is often generated by state subsidies and tuition fees in the main. However, in some universities tuition fees may constitute as much as 35-40% of a university's total revenue making student tuition fees an instrument to generate significantly more income by setting higher fee regimes. The question though is why should the burden of generating more income be placed squarely on the shoulders of students irrespective of what the factors are that contribute to rising university costs? Surely there are other streams of income for universities to consider or are most of our universities simply taking the most convenient route of passing the buck onto the student. Unfortunately for university administrations, the student movement and its current leadership are resolute on bringing an end to unjustified fee increments.

The mistake that university administrations seem to be making is not to negotiate in good faith with student leaders. The student movement has always been the intellectual pulse of society and to undermine the capacity of student leaders to negotiate for better learning conditions will prove to be a costly mistake for many university administrations. Universities should give meaning to the principle of cooperative governance and meet student leaders half way. If university administrations continue to pay lip service to the principle of cooperative governance students will be left with no choice but to revolt through rolling mass action.

We must welcome the idea of a task team that will collectively and comprehensively look at the issue of fee increments in institutions of higher learning. This idea was mooted by Minister Blade Nzimande and will certainly pave the way for the transition to free higher education for the poor. It is important that all stakeholders collectively discuss the barriers to the provision of free higher education and how best to overcome them. This will mean a thorough discussion on the current institutional landscape and whether the current infrastructure is adequate or not. If we were to implement free higher education tomorrow, do we have enough institutions and colleges to absorb all youth in need? If not, how many more new universities and colleges should we build? Do we have enough academics to meet the demand? If not, how do we produce more academics to provide all students with a quality higher education. Is the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) adequately capacitated to become the best and most suitable vehicle for the provision of free higher education? What lessons can be learnt from countries such as Chile which is grappling with a similar task of having to implement free higher education for the poor? These are just some of the questions that will need to be addressed by all stakeholders. Fundamentally though, the realisation of no fee increments and the ultimate objective of free higher education will remain a pipe dream if we allow Capitalism to prevail.

There is no doubt that at some point in time higher education for the poor should be free and this can only truly be achieved through the demise of Capitalism. To increase student fees on an annual basis will lead to the systematic exclusion of poor, working class students. This is unacceptable given the already low levels of education and skills amongst South African youth and poor youth in particular. As the student movement leads the struggle for zero fee increments and ultimately free education they must equally realise it's interconnectedness with the struggle for a new economic order.

Yershen Pillay

YCLSA National Chairperson

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