Fee-free ed­u­ca­tion dilemma

Fury mounts over ‘reck­less de­ci­sion’


FREE higher ed­u­ca­tion could be Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s legacy but an­a­lysts have warned that a reck­less show of gen­eros­ity would fur­ther dam­age the econ­omy.

They said Zuma was likely to buckle un­der pres­sure from stu­dents who made the loud­est noise and would use the op­por­tu­nity to por­tray him­self as the pres­i­dent who had de­liv­ered free ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion.

Vi­o­lent stu­dent protests for free higher ed­u­ca­tion brought the coun­try to a stand­still in 2015. Zuma ap­pointed a com­mis­sion of in­quiry to in­ves­ti­gate its fea­si­bil­ity last year.

The com­mis­sion, chaired by Judge Arthur He­her, handed its re­port to Zuma in Au­gust but he is yet to publi­cise it.

Ear­lier this month Zuma told Par­lia­ment the re­lease of He­her’s re­port was im­mi­nent. He re­peated the prom­ise this week.

With spec­u­la­tion rife about the re­port’s con­tents, many be­lieve Zuma will try to ap­pease the stu­dents.

“Free ed­u­ca­tion would paint the pres­i­dent in a pos­i­tive light. It would be good for Zuma and his legacy. Then again, it would have to come from gov­ern­ment cof­fers,” said po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Dr Bheki Mn­gomezulu.

“As it stands, our coun­try is not per­form­ing well. From a prac­ti­cal point of view, we can­not af­ford it now.”

An­other po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst, Daniel Silke, said free ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion could also hurt Zuma’s legacy.

“Some will ap­plaud the de­ci­sion, but oth­ers may see it as a po­ten­tially reck­less de­ci­sion in an al­ready suf­fer­ing econ­omy,” he said.

Econ­o­mist Dawie Roodt said what was wor­ry­ing was that there was no clear plan on where the funds would come from.

He said it seemed to be a case of the gov­ern­ment giv­ing in to those who made the loud­est noise.

“In this case, it’s the stu­dents. Free ed­u­ca­tion is a po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion that will dam­age our coun­try. It’s fine to have free ed­u­ca­tion, but how would we af­ford it? It means we would have to spend less on some­thing else, in­crease taxes or bor­row money. All three op­tions would not work,” said Roodt.

He said bor­row­ing money would be dif­fi­cult, con­sid­er­ing the R50.8 bil­lion tax col­lec­tion short­fall.

“We al­ready have debt that is way too high. We can bor­row money, but be­cause we are al­ready over­spend­ing, that would be detri­men­tal. If we in­creased taxes our econ­omy would be bur­dened fur­ther and we would end up with an an­gry na­tion,” said Roodt.

Eco­nom­ics Pro­fes­sor Bonke Du­misa said he loved the idea of free ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion for all, but even some of the wealth­i­est coun­tries in the world, such the US, could not af­ford it.

The di­rec­tor of the In­de­pen­dent In­sti­tu­tion of Ed­u­ca­tion, one of the big­gest play­ers in pri­vate ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion cir­cles, Dr Fe­lic­ity Cough­lan, said they told the He­her Com­mis­sion free ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion was not fea­si­ble, given the state of the econ­omy.

“Al­though we don’t think the free ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy will have any im­pact on us, we be­lieve its im­ple­men­ta­tion should be mea­sured.

“We be­lieve the Na­tional Stu­dent Fi­nan­cial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is not enough. But this does not mean we ad­vo­cate free ed­u­ca­tion – per­haps in fu­ture, but not when the econ­omy is not pro­gress­ing.”

Cough­lan said, should free ed­u­ca­tion get the green light, the ben­e­fi­cia­ries should be re­quired to pay back at least some of the money so that it could be “re­cy­cled” to as­sist oth­ers in need.

She said she was dis­ap­pointed the re­port was not re­leased when it was com­pleted months ago – it could now spark in­sta­bil­ity if it did not meet stu­dent ex­pec­ta­tions.

“It should have been re­leased be­fore ex­ams be­gan so that they could pre­pare for the new year. We are also con­cerned about the im­pact of a re­lease in the mid­dle of the ex­ams. It will be dis­rup­tive,” she said.

Pro­fes­sor Hen­ri­ette Hay-swem­mer of Educor said she was ex­cited about the pos­si­bil­i­ties cre­ated for pri­vate higher ed­u­ca­tion providers if free ed­u­ca­tion be­came a re­al­ity.

“Free higher ed­u­ca­tion will inevitably lead to a drop in stan­dards, over­crowded class­rooms, higher dropout rates and less per­son­alised learn­ing. This is where af­ford­able pri­vate higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions can play a piv­otal role,” said Hay-swem­mer.

She said pri­vate higher ed­u­ca­tion could pro­vide per­son­alised high-qual­ity higher ed­u­ca­tion that was au­then­tic and de­vel­oped the crit­i­cal at­tributes so­ci­ety re­quired.

So­cial me­dia was abuzz this week with those in sup­port of free ed­u­ca­tion say­ing it was nec­es­sary for the coun­try’s growth, while some doubted the qual­ity of qual­i­fi­ca­tions it would pro­duce and ques­tioned the po­lit­i­cal mo­tives at play.

Pres­i­dency spokesper­son Dr Bon­gani Ngqu­lunga said the re­port was be­ing stud­ied by the in­ter-min­is­te­rial com­mit­tee for higher ed­u­ca­tion, chaired by Min­is­ter in the Pres­i­dency Jeff Radebe, work­ing with the pres­i­den­tial fis­cal com­mit­tee.

“There has been no de­ci­sion on when the re­port on the fund­ing for higher ed­u­ca­tion will be re­leased.”


Evita Bezuiden­hout with a wax model of Nel­son Man­dela, cre­ated by sculp­tor Lun­gelo Gumede. His works can be seen at Lun­gelo’s Wax Mu­seum, Dur­ban’s BAT Cen­tre, week­days 8am to 5pm. En­try is free. See Page 15.

Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma... un­wrap­ping the ed­u­ca­tion good­ies?

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