Let the de­bate be about what’s good for the coun­try

Business Day - - OPINION -

If you want peo­ple to op­pose a pro­posal, get Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma to en­dorse it. A re­ported plan by the pres­i­dent to spend bil­lions the coun­try can­not af­ford to fund free univer­sity for all has sparked a frenzy of fear.

As in­for­ma­tion leaked out, it turned out that this was not quite what he has in mind and that the plan is not a done deal.

Re­ports say he wants free higher ed­u­ca­tion for peo­ple in house­holds earn­ing be­low R350,000 a year. He has not yet got his way be­cause Trea­sury stud­ies show it can only be done by rais­ing tax or cut­ting back on ne­ces­si­ties such as so­cial grants. The plan was surely leaked by peo­ple in the gov­ern­ment who want to stop it, which means the bat­tle it has trig­gered is not over. There are good rea­sons to op­pose the plan. While fund­ing is needed for stu­dents who have the brains for higher ed­u­ca­tion but not the money, R30,000 a month sets the bar way too high: it is hardly a poverty in­come.

In ad­di­tion, the plan can­not be funded with­out cut­ting ser­vices or rais­ing taxes. Since those who pay in­come taxes are bet­ter or­gan­ised than the poor who rely on gov­ern­ment ser­vices, free higher ed­u­ca­tion for some will prob­a­bly mean smaller grants or worse ed­u­ca­tion or fewer street lights for oth­ers. The plan would also prob­a­bly be a one-year won­der be­cause money won’t be avail­able for it in fu­ture. So it is fair to dis­miss it as a pop­ulist ges­ture de­signed to avoid cam­pus con­flict for a year, leav­ing the prob­lem to the next pres­i­dent’s gov­ern­ment.

How­ever, if a plan for free higher ed­u­ca­tion for only some is a huge prob­lem, how much more does this ap­ply to the call to make it free for all?

Yet a re­cent book ad­vo­cat­ing this was greeted by com­men­ta­tors as an in­spi­ra­tion: the only rea­son why any­one had to pay for univer­sity or col­lege, they said, was be­cause the gov­ern­ment wasted money. This is not, of course, what the Trea­sury stud­ies that are now quoted so sym­pa­thet­i­cally say.

Why, then, was the free ed­u­ca­tion for all de­mand not greeted with the same hor­ror?

Be­cause what passes for a pol­icy de­bate here is not about what is good for the coun­try but about which side you are on in the bat­tle be­tween the so­ci­ety’s in­sid­ers over who should con­trol the gov­ern­ment and de­cide what is best for mil­lions of out­siders. And be­cause, as a spate of new books re­mind us, the prob­lems fac­ing the coun­try have been re­duced to the ac­tions of a sin­gle politi­cian who is said to have zom­bie-like su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers.

This is why, on higher ed­u­ca­tion and other is­sues, the de­bate is not about what we need to do but which fac­tion is do­ing it. It is also why, iron­i­cally, Zuma’s ea­ger­ness to por­tray him­self as a cham­pion of stu­dent ac­tivism could be good news for the poor.

Just as his ally, Batha­bile Dlamini, has made sure de­cent peo­ple can no longer at­tack so­cial grants, so Zuma may have en­sured that free higher ed­u­ca­tion for those who can af­ford it will now be seen not as a tri­umph for jus­tice but as a way of giv­ing the bet­ter-off a free ride at the ex­pense of the poor. Even if that is not enough to de­feat the plan now, it gives strong rea­son to re­v­erse it later.

We would be bet­ter off if we de­bated poli­cies on their mer­its, who­ever pro­poses them. But, since this does not seem likely soon, whether we win or lose ar­gu­ments will con­tinue to de­pend on whether pa­tron­age politi­cians rally peo­ple against them by float­ing bad ideas.


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