University Fees Must Fall in South Africa - 2015 a decisive year

2015-10-20 10:19

The year 2015, on the eve of the 40th anniversary since the 16 June 1976 students’ uprisings, is proving to be a decisive year in our University campuses. The discussions have been squarely focused on structural inhibitions that alienate students (particularly black students) from having a meaningful experience in the University campuses they are in. Intersectionality was elevated to highlight the double and/or triple burden experienced by some students because of their race, gender and sexuality choices. These cannot be dealt with in piece meal approaches but they must be collectively addressed, to transcend us to a transformed state of existence in our campuses. These campuses should be the beacons of progress; they should embody the values we want to see in the future South Africa we are building.

The South Africa we want to see is one that promotes inclusivity, minimizes wealth disparities and creates a dignified living space for all people. In University campuses today, the spotlight is being put on the role played by exorbitant costs of education in driving a social schism within our institutions and the broader society. The problem is not just fee increments as a standalone issue, the very logic that guides our funding model for Universities ought to be interrogated.

Universities use two sets of inflation (that derived from the Reserve Bank and what they call internal institutional inflation) to determine the rate of an increase. There have never been exhaustive engagements to explain how institutions determine the latter inflation. What we do know as fact is that “between 2000 and 2010, state funding per full-time equivalent (FTE) enrolled student fell by 1.1% annually in real terms” and that “tuition fees per FTE student increased by 2.5% annually, in real terms”. The state abdicated on its duties to fund students adequately and a gross injustice of burden transfer was done by Universities – making students and their families shoulder the burden.

Students do not come from faceless families and communities. Let us take a white headed household. According to the 2011 Census report the average income in such a household was at R365 134 per annum, this being the highest out of all racial groups. Let us call this the Smiths household. They have three children; Tom the first born started his MBChB in 2015 at the cost of R58 130 at Wits University. He lives in a residence with meal options at the cost of R48 000. In total he pays R106 130 before considering clothing, pocket money and miscellaneous costs. The Smiths have two other children, both undergoing basic education in private schooling. This family spends about R200 000 on education costs. The household still needs to have groceries, the parents must still go to work, perhaps they own a car and they have other bills to attend to and costs like life insurance, medical aid etc. Clearly even these top end income earners are suffocating without any ability to make tangible savings.

How much more of the Nkomos who we were told by the 2011 Census they earn on average R60 613. They definitely cannot even take their daughter Sibulele to University if she does not receive the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). Of course there are thousands of students across our campuses that qualify for NSFAS but are not receiving any funding due to a shortage of funds. The crisis is downplayed as though it is an insignificant shortfall yet it is not. Furthermore, there is another alarming reality to the fees debacle if we allow them to increase without any end in sight.

The fees discussion is an important one. People who do not have kids (or whose kids are still in primary) see this as insignificant. Yet it affects them directly. At this rate those people will be paying over R100 000 per year when their kids enter University, just on tuition fees alone. The trouble here is that salaries and wages are not increasing at a rate that's in tandem with such increases on fees. The end result is one that will sink even those in the upper middle class to serious pits of debt. Imagine you have two children University going in 2030 and their fees alone cost R200 000. Who shall University education become a preserve of in that instance? Surely the elite, the financially capable and able. Children of those without financial muscle will be left without choice but to consider second choice or third choice institutions within Higher Education.

Higher tuition fees mean even NSFAS funding increase in unlikely to cover more students than it does. Instead there is a great chance of NSFAS covering less and less students as time goes by because of the cost to cover one individual student that is rising exorbitantly. It is upon this reality that we need to consider different forms of funding higher education.

I have come to be a firm believer in the realization of free higher education as an equalizer towards social transformation. No institution would be able to justify race quotas (which are put in place as an attempt to minimize student debt given that black students in their majority struggle to cover their tuition and residence fees) that exclude access for academically deserving students. I do not see free higher education as an outcome of a country that does well, but it is an intricate part of building a viable society whose economy is knowledge skills based and wants to promote innovation for the future. In order for no part of our highly unequal society to be left behind, everyone must be given a fair equal chance to be in an institution of higher learning.

There is no contestation that University education remains important in our country, it increases opportunities to a decent living wage and also creates higher opportunities for upward mobility within managerial structures across the different industries of work. Thus, those who retort with snide remarks such as ‘if you cannot afford University go to colleges and go find work’ miss the important reality of how our economy functions. Universities are also faced with another onslaught as a result of seeking more avenues for funding, academics are burdened with high volume lecture halls with some teaching as many as 900 students in a semester by themselves. The same academics are expected to produce cutting edge research in order to earn the University money, while supervising more postgraduates in order to cash in on government’s funds payable upon graduation of each individual postgraduate student.

This commodification has introduced an intellectually untenable environment, whereby thinking, scholarship and research must happen at a speed train rate to meet the financial bottom-line and not the scholarly soundness. This misdirects the role and function of a University significantly. The quality and critical nature of our scholarship reduces. This is dangerous territory for a country like ours that should be sharpening as many minds as possible, giving them space to practice scholarly discipline and patience in order to come up with sound theories, postulations and worldviews. Thus, the fight for a sound funding model is also an attempt to slowdown the commodification of our institutions.

What needs to be done? Some considerations involve giving the current NSFAS allocation of R11.5 Billion for the 2016/17 financial year along a 1% once off tax for a limited number of years to the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) to invest and redistribute to institutions accordingly. This would either lead to free higher education or a serious reduction in tuition fees. Other ideas involve the state moving a policy for all corporates, including BBBEE beneficiaries giving up a stake of their companies as endowments to institutions in order for them to draw on dividends. Adam Habib’s idea, though seemingly progressive, to take the NSFAS money as collateral for all students to take loans from banks, has potential to cause massive levels of debt amongst young people. It is not too different to what students in the United States of America (USA) are battling – high levels of student debt.

In the final analysis, we need a funding model that will reduce future student debt and the high living costs on families. This is not just an issue for the poor South Africans, though they are hardest hit, it is an issue that should concern all of us. Very soon, not many people will afford to take their children to University without needing a loan of some kind to compensate for the funds directed to Universities. Even Universities themselves with more increases will end up running themselves into higher levels (than currently observed in their books) of student debt. A solution is necessary for the benefit of all of us.

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