Free Education in South Africa can be made a reality through creative thinking and financing.

2016-06-15 13:44

This week South Africans celebrate National Youth Day and possibly this year the burning question needs to be asked: “Is free education possible?”  As students did in Soweto in 1976, we should not forget the thousands of students who protested in October last year.

The “FeesMustFall” student-led protest movement began in response to a 10.5% increase in fees at South African universities. Protests started at the University of the Witwatersrand and spread to the University of Cape Town, the University of Pretoria and Rhodes University before spreading rapidly to other universities across the country.

Although the focus of the protests was centred on a rise in fees, a number of other factors formed the background for the protests. Education and social issues are inextricably linked and if, as a fledgling democracy, South Africa truly believes that education is a public good that would bring about much deeper transformation, it is surely time to ensure that “the doors of learning and culture should be opened for all.”  The student demonstrations seem to postulate that that time has arrived. It is also time for the authorities to take the initiative and put in place mechanisms to ensure that no bright student has forego a university education rather than allowing student protests to degenerate into violence and destruction as they surely will if nothing is done.

South Africa spends 0.75% of its GDP on tertiary education which is less than the African or world average.  The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, Adam Habib, estimated that if government could provide an extra R8 billion per year “that would cover the tuition fees of every student at every university” in the country.

If we start thinking out of the box on how free education in South Africa could be possible, we must arrive at the Innovative Financing for Development (IFD) door.  Free education is not unrealistic if we consider how other African and emerging countries are using IFD mechanisms—advocated by the United Nations Secretary-General, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—to fund their own socio-economic development.  This is done using their own domestic resources by placing micro-contributions on globalised activities such as telecommunications, for example, and without increasing foreign debt.

One way South Africa could generate revenue for education is to learn from the Haitian experience. Laurent Lamothe, former Prime Minister of Haiti and founder of LSL World Initiative (LSL), spearheaded a free education programme in his native Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010, by adding micro-contributions onto incoming telephone calls and wire transfers of remittances, in this way generating $1 million per month in funding for education.  These funds were channelled into an Education Fund providing free, quality education for approximately 1.4 million needy Haitian children.  Elementary school attendance rose from 55% to 90% as a result, transforming the lives of these children.  South Africa could apply elements of this example to its own context.

After his experiences in Haiti, Lamothe came to the realisation that Innovative Development financing could help many other countries.  While each country is unique in its needs, almost all have an increasing demand to finance socio-economic projects in the fields of health, education, water, infrastructure, electrification and security. This is what drove him to found LSL World Initiative, a global organisation that specialises in Innovative Development Financing.

Lamothe explains that micro-contributions have very little effect on the local population and many emerging countries are using the revenues generated in this way to fund their own development projects.

According to Lamothe the money is there, it just has to be unlocked from the diaspora flows and harnessed for the good of education or any other development priority.

How it works is governments set up and operate a National Strategic Development Programme (NSDP) adapted to the local context and in line with national priorities.  This programme operates with revenues generated through the comprehensive collection of taxes, levies, or contributions in key sectors offering the best opportunities in terms of volumes and growth potential such as mobile telecommunications services, money transfers and others.

This IFD model empowers governments to allocate the revenues generated directly to the financing of their own specific priority projects or programmes. A great number of untapped resources can be mobilised for socio-economic development and LSL can help make it happen in a secure, sustainable and efficient way”

Some illustrative values have been estimated for South Africa which make the R8 billion mentioned by the Vice-Chancellor of Wits University for free tertiary education pale by comparison.

Free education is possible in South Africa.  However, the South African government must demonstrate the commitment and willingness to take the initiative and make it happen.

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