The student mobilisations of the past several months have brought into stark relief the contradiction between Government’s stated commitment to free education for all as promised in the Freedom Charter and its claim to be presiding over a ‘developmental state’, and the experience of higher education for the majority at universities. While massive protests were sparked by an announcement that fees for tertiary education at some institutions would be increased by over 10%, the practice over many years of ‘financial exclusions’ of indebted students has repeatedly sparked eruptions on campuses at the commencement of the academic year. This has been true especially at historically disadvantaged institutions, which admit a higher percentage of students from poor families than their more advantaged counterparts. Moreover, there are studies that reveal that many university loan recipients are going hungry rather than risk financial exclusion.
Many university academics have long insisted that the current policy for funding higher education is inimical to their efforts to address South Africa’s legacy of unequal educational opportunity. The current challenge to the status quo is therefore an opportune moment for academics to not only express solidarity with the current movement for guaranteed access to higher education for poor students (and improved conditions of service for low-paid campus workers), but also to place the responsibility for rectifying this situation squarely at the door of government. Our government’s expenditure on higher education compares unfavourably to most countries around the world. While individual universities can mitigate the impact of chronic underfunding by ceasing to transfer the major responsibility for such underfunding to students, a radical change in government policy – and not only in tertiary education - is required. In several Southern countries, including Brazil, Ethiopia and India, fees for higher education are nominal or do not exist at all. Indeed, a 2012 Ministerial Working Group Report detailed the argument for a 'no fees for the poor' option and suggested how financing can be arranged differently. Presently, apart from the wastage of talent from ‘financial exclusions’, students who have received loans under the NSFAS are expected to commence repayment of these when earning salaries above a derisory monthly amount of R2500.
Contrary to the insistence by government and the private sector that free higher education for the majority of students is unaffordable, it is imperative that government find the funds needed. For example, taxation policies could be reviewed with this objective in mind. It has been demonstrated by economists that over at least the past 10 years taxation of the highest earners, and of corporations, has been reduced. It is argued that simply by bringing taxation of higher income South Africans (those earning over R700 000 per year) into line with several other countries – including Norway, Japan and the UK – and closing tax loopholes, it is likely that more than enough funding could be generated to provide free higher education to the great majority of students. This is but one of many options open to the state to raise the requisite revenue. Funding can be found but is dependent on the political, social and economic choices informing public expenditure by the state.
We, the undersigned academics and staff, in solidarity with the current student demands, call on our government to abolish payment for tertiary education for at least the majority of poor students and to meet the shortfall in university funding by radically reviewing taxation policy and budgetary allocations, with particular focus on corporate tax and tax avoidance, and on the top bracket of income earners. Such a move may alienate a tiny minority but would be a much-needed and cost-effective intervention towards a more equitable and sustainable South Africa.
David Sanders, Emeritus Prof, SoPH, University of the Western Cape
Ben Cousins, Prof and Research Chair, PLAAS, University of the Western Cape
Gavin Reagon, Senior Lecturer, School of Public Health (SoPH), University of the Western Cape
Nikki Schaay, Senior Researcher, SoPH, University of the Western Cape
Moenieba Isaacs, Assoc Prof, PLAAS, University of the Western Cape
Shirley Brooks, Assoc Prof, Geography, University of the Western Cape
Desiree Lewis, Assoc Prof, Women’s and Gender Studies, University of the Western Cape
Salim Vally, Prof, Education, University of Johannesburg