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.
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