|Salim Vally with Beatrice Akala, a post doctoral scholar at UJ|
South African higher education is facing a myriad of challenges emanating from the inability of a majority of students to meet the cost of their own education. Today’s presentation therefore comes at a crucial time when the nation is grappling with finding a balance between attempting to offer free tertiary education against other developmental and socioeconomic needs. The nation is also awaiting a Ministerial announcement regarding fee increment for 2017 and beyond.
In particular, the presentation delved into nuanced complexities regarding funding higher education post 1994. Albeit the need for fee-free higher education is more necessary, it cannot be extricated from the historical burden that was inherited from the past system. Much of what is happening now is an accumulation of disadvantages that have not been addressed adequately within the current dispensation. It was important that the presentation started by looking at its historicity within the ambit of existing theories and literature that undergird the transformatory policies and legislations that were enacted post 1994. It is imperative to state that the messaging behind transformation in higher education is anchored in social justice and redress. In a nutshell, post 1994 policies and legislative frameworks articulate the importance and positioning of higher education in the transformation trajectory of the “new nation state”, (White Paper, 1997; The Higher Education Act, 1997; The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa). Notably, as a public good, higher education has been charged with the responsibility of meeting the needs of society in terms of human resources and economic development, remedying the historical burdens, promoting human rights, people’s liberties, democratic values, academic freedom, creativity and research. Having said the above, I also note that it is becoming more apparent that these goals cannot be achieved fully if higher education is turning into an exclusive venture for the privileged minority.
Owing to this fact, the presentation revealed that the stakeholders in higher education have to work hard to make higher education accessible to all who aspire to have it. It is clear that the prevailing economic environment is a major impediment. Institutions of higher learning are struggling to meet their academic goals whilst the demand for higher education is on the increase. Arguably the increase in enrolments is not met by similar increases in government funding. As a result, students from marginalized communities are facing systemic exclusion because of high tuition fees that are being charged by institutions of higher learning. Prof. Vally notes that the government is not doing enough to cushion these students because its’ contribution towards higher education has been on a downward trajectory since the year 2000’. It was revealed that between the year 2000 and the year 2010, funding per full time student fell by 1.1% annually in comparison to students’ tuition fees that increased by 2.5% annually. Clearly this is a mismatch.
Notwithstanding the above, NFSAS is at crossroads because it is struggling to attract more funds that can meet the demands of the ever increasing number of disadvantaged students. The needs are not limited to tuition fees but financial support is also required to cater for accommodation and food (so as to prevent students from living in squalid conditions and hunger). Although not desirable, students have expressed their frustration and displeasure on the streets by often destroying property under the mobilization of “fees must fall” demonstrations.
While comparing South Africa to other countries in the same developmental bracket, Prof. Vally argues that governmental spending on higher education is lower than that of other developing countries. Prof. Vally opines that perhaps proposing the notion of increasing funding for public higher education would instigate the nationwide move towards ‘fee-free’ higher education. I support this opinion and strongly believe that this move will be a welcome relief for many students who are currently struggling to afford access to higher education (missing middle) due to their financial inabilities. Nevertheless, in thinking about this option, we have to navigate carefully and be cognisant of the views of the opposing voices that link ‘fee-free’ education to inadequate and poor quality instruction which may lead to outcomes which could be construed as self-defeating.
The practical and immediate alternatives that were proposed in Prof Vally’s presentation require a paradigm shift in the reconceptualization of the current funding models. For instance, even with the constrained budgetary environment, there is a good case for increased funding for higher education. Some of the low lying fruits that can be targeted immediately would include curbing wastage in public spending and being more prudent with the usage of public resources; dealing decisively with corruption and corrupt individuals and encouraging more contributions from philanthropists. Similarly the private sector and multinationals should be encouraged to give more. A recommendation on the re-examination and re-evaluation of the current tax system seems reasonable especially for the high-end earners who have been perceived to be the greatest tax evaders. I believe that there is a high possibility of unlocking the current impasse in higher education if these alternatives can be considered and tested.Finally, I agree with Prof. Vally’s view that fee-free education for all should be allied with the promotion of a responsible public service and citizenship. The thinking behind this suggestion is laudable because it gives its recipients a reason and an opportunity to give back to the society honourably. Initiatives such National Youth Service Programmes and mandatory service in the public sector should be considered. Countries like Nigeria have adapted this policy. Against this backdrop, I therefore share in Prof. Vally’s optimism for having undifferentiated fee-free education. This was sufficient motivation to challenge all participants to think creatively and be open-minded to change so as to reimagine a new vision that can and will inevitably change the status quo. And to quote wisdom that carefully describes the Prof’s convictions, Proverbs 29:18 states “My people perish due to lack of vision”.