Unfortunately, potential students face two systemic roadblocks to accessing university study. First, the public higher education system is under pressure. There simply are not enough seats to meet the demand. Indeed, despite government priorities to massify higher education, the numbers allowed access have remained flat or have decreased over the last few years. A Bachelor’s exemption is no guarantee of a place, and the desperation to qualify has increased accordingly. The saddest evidence of this occurred early 2012 when the mother of an applicant was trampled to death by others battling to get the last few places at the University of Johannesburg.
Second is the matter of educational costs. Fees remain prohibitively high for a significant percentage of the student population. In that, there is a simple matter of justice, as only those families with adequate resources can afford to send students for study. And since better-resourced families are predominantly white, a legacy of South African history, this raises a racial dynamic in an already explosive set of circumstances.
The ANC-led government, specifically in the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), has been aware of this situation for a while, and attempted to address it through two means: a) the creation of more public universities (in Kimberley and Nelspruit) to increase the numbers of spaces, and b) the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to assist needy students overcome the financial burden. In order to qualify for the scheme, a student must pass a financial means test; if the student’s family makes too much money, they will not be eligible for aid from the scheme, and must pay from their own resources and/or loans from the private sector. Unfortunately, this is not a guaranteed solution. There exists a “credit gap” for those seeking loans but whose families are juxtapositioned between the category of indigent and financially able. These "in-between" families, earn too much for the scheme but are often unable to access loans because commercial lenders are hesitant to take on the risk with families who do not earn enough to assure eventual repayment. There are many students who are stuck in this limbo, and it is these primarily that suffer exclusion because of financial shortfalls in fee payments. In short, they are indigent, but not indigent enough.
NSFAS has other structural problems. The scheme works on a rotating basis, with those who have benefited from funding required to repay the scheme upon graduation. However, the payback rate has been dangerously low, either because of employment issues for graduates, or some who simply refuse to repay. In addition, the scheme’s application process takes place at University level; the institution is supposed to identify those students who have demonstrated the capacity to succeed in order for the scheme to recover its funds as it should. Nevertheless, ongoing issues of throughput and dropout rates mean that some recipients fail to finish their studies, and thus are in no position to repay the scheme because their employment prospects are low.
This unsustainable financial structure became the trigger for last year’s protests. At the beginning of the 2015 academic year, NSFAS-dependent students at Wits University were shocked to discover that they were not allowed to register because their fees from the previous year were not paid for by the scheme. The insolvency of the scheme was now an open secret, and with no other immediate options, students faced the loss of an academic year. The resourceful measures taken by the SRC with some assistance from alumni helped to avert the immediate crisis, but the systemic problem remained.
The crisis also revealed another reality about public higher education. All public universities are heavily subsidised by the state, roughly up to half of their budgets. The amount of this subsidy has started to decrease incrementally over the past few years, down to about 45% on average, and the trend looks to continue. This shortfall means that universities, in order to maintain quality and to serve their mandates, must now recover funding elsewhere and the most obvious option is from tuition and other student fees, like accommodation and registration.
This reality, along with inflation, meant that universities had to increase fees for 2016. On average the increases were anywhere from 8% to 11%--significantly above the costs of inflation, to compensate for the reducing state subsidiary. When the new rates were announced, the patience of students reached the breaking point, and protests broke out, first at Wits, the site of the earlier finance shock, but now spreading nationwide as a result of the reality that indigent students now faced being locked out of a university education. With NSFAS in financial strain, and private lenders not stepping into the gap, the future looks bleak for students, primarily from working-class black families, who are first-generation university students. The clear feeling of injustice that they perceived on many fronts, not just financial but structural as well (see other campaigns such as #RhodesMustFall, etc.) prompted them to activism.
As a long-term servant of the higher education sector, my colleagues and I were not surprised at these turn of events. The structural problems identified above are well known, and its unsustainability meant that the hand of the state would be forced one way or there other. But all is not lost. A crisis such as this is also an opportunity to assess and come up with new solutions to address a strategic and critical need for our country’s future. I humbly suggest four things that can address this crisis.
1. The state needs to be less hostile to private higher education provision. Right now, private providers are treated just above “necessary evil” status, stereotyped by the belief that profit making is their only objective. First, this is not so. Full disclosure: I have worked for St Augustine College of South Africa for ten years. It is a registered non-profit and a public benefit organisation (PBO) to boot and is regarded with respect in university circles. But we recognise that the considerable majority are for profit. The private sector has regrettably been tarnished with the brush of some naughty diploma-mill outfits over the years, but regulation from the state has weeded out just about all of the gross offenders who have no intention to educate. Those that remain, and persist in a very restrictive regulatory culture, have, by dint of their persistence, demonstrated their commitment to serving the common good by providing a much-needed service. Despite the claims of DHET, the percentage of university students attending private institutions has been growing consistently (some estimates of the percentage are as high as 20-25%). And some are creative about financing and bursary options so that the stereotype of it being the option only for the wealthy is being challenged. Particularly as alumni increase from these institutions, the potential growth of alumni financial support becomes an important means of making institutions self-sustaining in the future.
2. NSFAS must be managed better and more efficiently. The scheme can work, but it requires tighter supervision and aggressive enforcement of the promises that graduates make to repay. The latter is a moral issue. Despite anticipated demands from future activism for “free education”, that is simply impossible. There is a price to pay for anyone to acquire a tertiary degree, in particularly the cost is high for persons who has been in education as a vocation. These costs must be paid. And although there are proposals to restructure higher education so that students will not have to bear a significant brunt of costs (if at all), it will take a while to implement. Until (or whether or not) that comes, the scheme is one of the best options in principle. But to make it work, persons must keep their promises. If one has benefited, they must repay the scheme. Successful compliance can also expand it to raise the threshold for participation.
3. A more well-rounded vision must be communicated to matric school leavers: University is not the only option for a healthy future. DHET, along with the Department of Basic Education and the business sector, must do a better job of combatting the perception that the university is the only route out of poverty for matric leavers. There are many apprenticeship or FET options that provide students with meaningful occupations, but battle with negative perceptions because of these false perceptions. South Africa still imports persons from other countries with specific skills because there is no South African youth being trained in them. The institutions above need to work better together to demonstrate and make this an appealing option, especially in the face of the wolf of unemployment lurking at too many doors.
4. Finally, the global over-arching matter: Address the corruption that saps the resources of the state that need to be invested in its people and initiate industrial development programs that obviate the need for massive expatriation of capital (such as the proposed nuclear program). As stated previously, free education is not a reality. Arguably, it should never be seen as “free” as then it is devalued in the eyes of the student and society at large. However, the State must facilitate the investment in the youth in particular and education in general through subsidisation of the countries educational infrastructure. Furthermore, the state must pursue industrial development policies that result in increases in local productivity, including local beneficiation of natural resources and manufacture of goods. This should be tied to a post-school educational policy that embraces a range of opportunities from developing artisanal skills to professional qualifications. In addition, the scourge of corruption must cease as it both undermines the productivity of the state to deliver on its promises and creates an “atmosphere” of graft and corruption that undermines the morale of the citizens and corrupts the morals of the entire nation.
Failure to address the above issues decisively with credible leadership from the Departments of Education, Trade and Industry and Justice and related stakeholders, will result in on-going systemic failure and South Africa will be sure to witness more student unrest in 2016.
The #FeesMustFall protests and associated student activism did not come out of the blue. In fact, South African higher education has been under pressure for some time on many fronts. But the factors leading to the past year’s events were a combination of fiscal instability of the higher education system and inequities of access for South African students along economic and racial lines.