Free Higher Education for All Is an Ideal Worth Fighting For
BYLINE: Saleem Badat
I support the ideal of free higher education.
I also support the idea that healthcare should be available free of charge to all in need, just as I believe that our economic and social policies should prioritise full employment through which all can enjoy the dignity that is associated with leading economically and socially productive lives.
Of course, these ideals are a great anathema to neo-liberal economic and social orthodoxies, which laud the "free market" and a minimal state, and advocate the privatisation of all aspects of economic and social life. Their celebrated rationale is the egoistical individual motivated by profits and money. Recall that it is this thinking that recently plunged the world into an economic recession, at great cost to millions of people, from which we are painfully recovering.
Neo-liberals scorn any notion of the public or social good or collective wellbeing. Yet, we should not be shy of asserting the aspiration to live in a South Africa that puts human development and wellbeing first and that prizes a highly educated, informed and critical citizenry. This is consistent with our constitutional ideals.
Free higher education is possible in South Africa. It is a question of making reasoned public choices, and of understanding the consequences of public policies of both free and non-free higher education.
Of course, a policy of free higher education requires fundamental re-thinking of and changes in our social goals, priorities and policies. If there is, however, no significant change in these regards, I am unable, for reasons I set out below, to support the call for free higher education.
First, the public subsidies that our universities receive from government do not cover their full running costs. They must rely on tuition and residence fees from students, as well as income from donors, research and other activities to maintain themselves.
If free higher education were to be introduced immediately, the government would need to provide, apart from the current R17.5 billion, an additional R7.7bn to universities. If funding for accommodation in university residences was included a further R1.3bn would have to be provided. If the government was to provide accommodation and subsistence for all students, R21bn more would have to be made available.
These funds could be at the expense of health, housing and other needy sectors.
Unless the government made up the shortfall that universities would experience as a result of free higher education for all, our universities would not simply battle to operate. They would collapse and cease to exist.
Currently, private higher education institutions in South Africa do not enjoy much prestige.
As with other countries that introduced free higher education for all without increasing public funding, a fertile environment would be created where the wealthy would send their children to private institutions, or to overseas universities. Higher education would thus become even more of a generator of class and other divisions and inequalities.
Second, we live in one of the most unequal societies on Earth, in which there are huge income and other inequalities. Free higher education would be a great boon for wealthy and middle-class parents who can afford to pay university tuition/residence fees and associated costs. In effect, this would be a public subsidy to the very rich and well-off middle classes and a further entrenchment of inequalities.
Third, a university education has both public and private benefits. The graduates of universities contribute in various ways to the public good - as teachers, health professionals, engineers, public servants and the like.
However, they currently also derive often handsome private benefits in the form of better prospects of decent employment, earning substantially higher incomes, enjoying higher standards of living, having more doors open to them, and having many more of life's pleasures available to them than those who do not have a university degree. …