Mikovhe Tshivhase –
With increasing university tuition fees and rising living costs, students across the country have protested through the #feesmustfall campaign.
They were demonstrating for amongst other things, reduced tertiary institution fees, no upfront registration fees and even the obliteration of fees completely to mention a few.
In this article, I present some arguments that will add to the current debates as well as give my view on whether a no compromise attitude to delivering free education is sustainable.
The merits of providing free accessible tertiary education in a country speak for themselves. It is no illusion that everybody, whether directly or indirectly, benefits from the spill-over effect of a more educated society.
However, David Earle, Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis and Reporting Division (Ministry of Education) adds that the amount of schooling undertaken is not related to growth but rather it’s the general improvement in cognitive skills that brings growth and economic benefits in the long-run.
Studies have shown that there has been a rapid rise in the number of graduates, however, many graduates are leaving university to take on jobs which don’t require a degree.
This problem just exposes the fundamental disjuncture between formal education curriculum and the business sector requirements.
Which then begs the question, do we continue to fund the public expansion of university education when the economy doesn’t need more graduates as much as other skills?
If higher education was to be funded solely through taxpayer subsidies then an additional R71-billion, over and above the existing R25-billion, would be needed.
Most analysts and student leaders have claimed that government can afford free education by prioritizing education and curbing of excessive government spending and corruption.
Well, I agree, however implementing these remedies alone is a short-term solution to the problem given the ever rising costs of running institutions.
Inflation and the anticipated increment of student intakes will keep the tab on education rising and at some point, strategic parts of the economy will have to be sacrificed in the budget to keep free education running.
Therefore, a more sustainable, outward looking plan that looks into the long-term funding of free education needs to be put in place.
The country needs to grow the economy and become more innovative so that it can increase its tax revenue. This can be accomplished by value adding graduates driven by innovation.
My view is that a complete across the board fees-free tertiary education is not so much of a good idea, financially and also because if people have to pay to go to university, you could argue that they would value the education more and contrary.
If higher education is free, it may encourage students to not take the opportunity of studying seriously.
I, however, support that education should be free only to the poor, those that cannot afford and the academically deserving students because it will provide equality of opportunities in tertiary institutions.
In conclusion, I think a no compromise approach to free education might have devastating long term effect for South Africa and we ought to be cautious.