Here’s how we can achieve free higher education by 2019


Professor ARI SITAS believes free tertiary education is possible for students in South Africa and should be implemented by 2019. Sitas answers six questions on how this could be achieved so soon.

1. How should free tertiary education in South Africa be funded?

It should be funded by a ring-fenced, SARS-administered Graduate Tax of 1% on graduate salaries at the point of employment. For example, I as a professor at a university earning X a month will pay 1% of my salary and another who works as a clerk at SANRAL who earns a quarter of what I do, will pay the requisite 1% on his or her salary.

2. Why wait until 2019, why not start now?

It gives time for the existing system to be effaced and the new system to be put in place by SARS, the Department of Higher Education and Training, the Council for Higher Education and the university administrations in conversation with students.

In the meanwhile, there should be no fee increases until 2019 and subsidies should be provided for the universities to meet their costs. A decent short-term loan from the BRICS Bank, given that the countries are to agree this year on working towards fully-funded or appropriately – funded tertiary education in the BRICS domain, may be procured.

3. Will it be enough?

Do the maths: all graduates in jobs since 1973 on an average salary (this is a thumb-suck) of R500, 000 a year will give you double of what is spent by universities, forever, if need be. If this idea gains traction, we will do the maths to their exhaustive detail.

4. The DA, following the South African Institute of Race Relations has argued that there are enough resources within the existing budget to save universities and end their underfunding. Why an extra 1%?

I am sure there is a lot of money to be saved and redistributed within the existing system. This should be done. But should it go to the higher education system and not basic education? Or should it go to health or to social grants or unemployment relief? Shouldn’t such prudent redistribution be going towards the land question and redressing basic needs? Should it go to those who are to be advantaged through the system? This says that all of us who have benefited from an education provided through the public purse, give back to the enhancement of the tertiary education system.


Debunking misconceptions surrounding free education

5. What about equity?

Here, we are dealing with a proposal that recognises income stratification and therefore class, race and gender issues. The wealthy graduates pay more, the less wealthy – the overwhelming black majority – pay less. Simple.

6. But what about capital? Shouldn’t capital pay?

Tax revenue from capital only provides 22.9% or so of our national revenue – companies pay less tax than individuals. However, capital provides much of the third stream funding for some of our existing universities and is also taxed through a levy for skills development and training. I am for increasing corporate tax but most of my peers are against it because, they say, it would dissuade investment and limit growth in the country. I am proposing that, yes, at this stage, let’s tax capitalists, professionals and citizens who have degrees an additional 1%, and through this meagre amount from each, increase the welfare of all future students.

7. Are you suggesting full funding of universities?

We must arrive at a consensus of what 100% funding means in South Africa, as some of us have developed very expensive habits. And there is about 20%-25% of most university budgets (given our managerial schemes to increase the productivity of universities) that has to be accrued through our entrepreneurship through research, projects, innovation, patents and broadly what is called third-stream funding. There is a strong pressure group which believes that this should remain in place. What I am proposing may cover 100% or 75% of university fees – this will only be clarified when partners in higher education start talking.

Ari Sitas is a sociology professor at the University of Cape Town and the chair of the National Institute for the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

Featured image by Ra’eesa Pather


  1. Either I’m missing something here, or I’m living in an alternative-universe South África – you know, the one where a R500 000 p.a. salary is a bloody fortune and decidedly not “average”.

    This scheme also doesn’t say how the taxed graduates will feel about subsidising those who (for various reasons) do not manage to graduate.

    • therealmidnite, the taxed graduates are in essence paying BACK their own tuition fees, not subsidising those who come after (we gotta sell it right though…). And this way they can embark on their careers with a degree AND without a huge millstone of debt around their necks …

  2. Of course any form of free education will need to come from increasing taxes somehow. But do we tax all graduates since 1973 (as the article suggests) or rather impose a greater percentage tax on newer graduates, the ones who actually would have benefited from the free education, not the ones who paid for their own education at the time. Of course we must also remember that the flood-gates would open under a free education model, so Universities would have to ensure a strict qualifications criteria for entrance, ultimately benefiting everyone and meaning that the brightest but poorest could get their chance to shine. On the revenue side I think an average graduate salary of circa R500,000 (range of R200,000 to R5m) is probably about right, but the cost side needs to bear in mind drop-outs and those who emigrate soon after graduating.


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