27 June 2017

South Africa: Constructing the Roadmap to Affordable Education


The state of funding of higher education

Universities around the world, as social institutions, are expected to contribute in a variety of ways to the well-being of the people living in those societies. Amongst these critically important functions is the role of universities in helping to construct more equal societies and to enhance their capacity of ensuring that education drives social mobility.

It was in 1999-2000 that the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California, carried out a study on the affordability of higher education and its findings were that higher education had priced itself out of reach of most citizens. Its report was titled "Breaking the Social Contract" because this is what had effectively happened.

The fees issue at the heart of the student activism over the last 20 years is linked inextricably to the state of funding of higher education in South Africa. Our universities, and the sector more generally, are severely underfunded and have been chronically so for two decades. Irrespective of what solutions we will find for the fees issue these will not be lasting solutions unless the state of funding of higher education is also addressed.

In terms of the fees issue, which has been very timely in forcing us to review the way in which higher education is funded, it is time for us as a nation to focus in on those areas in which we have consensus and to use this as a platform to make further gains.

There is a national consensus, it seems to me, and it goes like this: in a democracy such as ours, higher education cannot and should not price itself out of reach of most South African families. Our public universities are social institutions and one of their core functions is to ensure that they contribute to the construction of an equal, egalitarian society. They have to be at the centre of the project of social mobility. Any other construction of our university system undermines the very purpose of higher education.

University communities around South Africa are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the Presidential Commission on Higher Education and Training, also known as the Heher Commission. It was meant to submit its report to the President ten months after the President signed it into being - the middle of November 2016. The Commission since received an extension of time to the end of June this year and now we have heard that it has applied for a further extension. We do not have any idea whether this was approved and if so till when. Perhaps more importantly it is not clear what will happen to the report once it is delivered to the President's Office. We ought to remind ourselves that the establishment of the Commission was a response to a crisis, a crisis that continues.

Further, we have no idea what the report is to say.

Actually, none of this really matters because we have the answers to the questions raised by the students during this period of activism. We should also be acutely aware that these old questions raised by students at the historically black universities in wave-after-wave of student struggles.

What the President did in October 2015, after meeting with vice-chancellors, chairpersons of university councils, student leaders and various cabinet ministers, was to kick the proverbial can down the road and it continues to roll.

One way of addressing this is to resort to a student loan system as we have with NSFAS but with the proviso that there is sufficient money in the pool to ensure that no young person who is admitted to a seat for study towards a university qualification is prevented from doing so because of financial reasons.

The question really is whether this should be a loan system or an outright grant system for the poorest in our society. The level of student debt in the USA has now reached an astronomical $1.3 trillion. And in the UK students are asking the tough question: does a university education justify running up a student debt of UKP 40-50,000 - even before you have entered employment?

In a society as unequal as ours, we cannot go down this route. Our challenge is to design a system that is either a grant system for the poor and 'missing-middle' students or a tax-based system that recoups the cost of higher education for all once graduates are employed or a mixture of these.

Interestingly, the Ministerial Task Team to develop a Support and Funding Model for Poor and "Missing Middle" students led by Sizwe Nxasana has produced a report that takes the route of an outright grant to cover the full cost of studies for students from poorest families - families with incomes of less than R122,000 per annum, and then a mixture of grants and loans for those from families with incomes between this lower threshold and R600,000. The recoupment of the loans portion will be done, in this model, through the tax system and only when the grantees are employed.

It seems then that we have a good idea of what has to be done - at least as a first step. What is required now is the political will to lay out a roadmap that plots out the way that we will get from where we are to where we want to be.

There is no need for us to await the outcome of the Commission. Let's construct this roadmap.

Professor Bawa is the Chief Executive Officer of Universities South Africa. Previous positions include terms as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research, Knowledge Production and Partnerships) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Principal of the Durban Campus of the same university and Vice-Principal of the Pietermaritzburg Campus. By virtue of his Vice-Chancellorship, Professor Bawa was a member of the Board of Directors of the former Higher Education South Africa (HESA) - now renamed Universities SA - and served as its Chairperson until December 2013.

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