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Debunking misconceptions surrounding free education

Protests over university fees are making headlines again, following the conflagration at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The debate on how to fund free education is not new, is evolving and remains an open question despite what the apparent “consensus” seems to be from university vice chancellors. Here are four myths about the viability of free education that need to go right now.

1. Free education can be thought of separately from the vision of a decolonised society
There’s a deep misunderstanding within public discourse that free education is simply a matter of funds and accessibility. While access to education is fundamentally a social concern relating to historic inequality, the problem is inseparable from our vision of a decolonised South Africa.

Part of the discussion on decolonisation critiques the model of education embodied by the US education system, where education has become predominantly a matter of getting a certificate that ensures economic viability. In this model, education is a commodity that serves the interest of a production-based system where individuals are simply “rational” market agents.

The challenge to this model, posed by movements such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, is the ideal of the university as a liberatory site of knowledge production – a space where scholars are provided with the knowledge, skills and training they need to better serve society.

To this end, the institutional culture, makeup of staff and management and question of curriculum cannot be separated from the question of university funding. Funding, in fact, provides the backdrop from which all these questions might be posed.

rhodes-must-fall-meeting free education

2. NSFAS and loans to fund education are progressive funding mechanisms
Loans are not an equitable way of funding education because student debt primarily affects poor and historically disadvantaged students.

Additional debt for these students would simply add to the burden of “black tax”. Many black students have more than just their own individual expenses to consider, and bear the responsibility of contributing to household and extended family expenses straight out of school. After graduation, debt decreases the social mobility of students, who are hampered in their ability to afford their own housing, transport and expenses – expenses that more privileged students may already have covered through generational wealth.

Fear of debt also affects the career choices students make. For example, a poor student who wants to become a teacher in order to help address South Africa’s education crisis, might choose a more lucrative career path in order to pay off their student debt more quickly.

A black performer bows down in front of Rhodes' Teahouse to represent black subjugation
A performer bows down in front of Rhodes’ Teahouse to represent black subjugation

Many argue that that loans take financial pressure off of government. Yet these loans are assured by the state – meaning that the state must pay back the debt when students default on repayments. As NSFAS continues struggling to recover the R21 billion in loans, the state remains under financial pressure irrespective.

3. Getting in bed with corporates is a viable alternative for funding
Another prevalent argument is that to fund free education, universities have to resort to private partnerships in order to meet socially progressive ends.

But corporate funding, like government funding, comes with strings attached. It is willfully ignorant to assume that private interests may impact university autonomy any less than government interests. Corporations are profit driven and will only be involved if it serves their interests or if there is commercial benefit. Private funding affects what gets approved for research. This directly influences the intellectual output of universities and the freedom of academics. Scholarships and bursaries tend to favour studying STEM disciplines – the science, technology, engineering and mathematics streams – which again affects the decisions poorer students make when selecting a course of study. Corporations are also more likely to fund historically white universities such as UCT and Wits as they have more marketable exposure – this further entrenches inequality between universities.

When universities begin to operate like businesses, we see a similar commodification of education to meet commercial ends.

free-education-protest-uct

4. Government ain’t got the cash, brah
One of the main arguments we hear for why free education is unattainable claims that the taxes collected by government are not enough to fund free education and that taxpayers are already overburdened.

But there have been several suggestions for how tax could be used to fund free education.

Most government tax revenue comes from Private Income Tax (PIT) and Value Added Tax (VAT). As some have proposed, we could increase the PIT for the top 10% of income earners to increase tax revenue and still be taxing less than other developing countries. A study recently released by the University of Stellenbosch  showed that 90-95% of all wealth (assets such as property, shares, cars etc.) is owned by just 10% of SA’s population. Wealth speaks a lot more directly to intergenerational inequality, and thus taxing it more heavily also falls in line with redistributive justice. Tax of wealth itself currently only accounts for 0.1% of tax revenue.

It may also be possible to reallocate funds in the national budget to prioritise issues like education and housing, while decreasing spending in other areas, like military spending. Heck, we could even rescind on a costly – and dodgy – nuclear deals.

Higher education is currently chronically, historically and comparatively underfunded by government and so, irrespective of the schemes involved, government has not been pulling its weight.

(You can read more about alternate means of funding free education in the student-organised pamphlet: Pathways to Free Education.)

Featured image by Ra’eesa Pather
9 Comments
  1. Dylan says

    1. Ah, yes it can

    Point me towards a nation in this world where a student pursues higher education with zero thought for earning a living?

    In addition, your assertion through omission that the US model (not that its anything like South Africa’s) does not provide students with “a space where scholars are provided with the knowledge, skills and training they need to better serve society.” is frankly, rubbish. They do, what you chose to do with those skills and how you feel you can better society is up to the student. The same goes for universities in South Africa.

    You obviously have zero understanding of the foundational principals of the western university system; which are in essence to be a ” liberatory site of knowledge production”.

    2. Debt can certainly be progressive.

    Just look at the English approach to university funding. There a student can take on the fees as debt and if they do not earn above a certain amount after university they do not have to pay it back. The debt is interest free and if not paid back in 40 odd years (open for correction) it is written off.

    Your ‘black tax’ is yet another folly. As if non-blacks do not have additional expenses to worry about or family’s to support. You would be surprised (if you managed to take your racial blinkers off) at the amount of whites in this country that have to support their families.

    3. Companies != Bad

    You do realise that corporations interests and positive social outcomes can align? I have also yet to see a report of research being denied in South Africa because a corporation did not like it. I would love to see your evidence for such a claim. Universities have fairly ironclad agreements with corporate sponsors so such a situation never arises.

    4. Have you even read your source?

    Your own source highlights the issues with trying to tax wealth. How do you even measure it? What if someone is not earning any money off that wealth, how are they supposed to pay for it? Sell it? Not to mention wealth accumulation —>savings —>investment which is a major determinant for economic growth. Are you seriously considering punishing people for putting money into this country?

    Your last paragraph on this point again highlights your serious lack of knowledge when it comes to this countries finances. You ask for spending to be reallocated to education and housing two of the departments with the highest budget allocations from an area such the defence force which has one of the lowest budget allocations which has put it under dire financial pressure. So much so, it isn’t able to adequately fulfill its commitments.

    If anything the allocations given to education and housing should be reduced as it seems those departments have reached saturation point in regards to spending their monies effectively.

    If you want to fund higher education better than reallocate funds from within the education sphere; ie. from Basic Education to Higher Education.

    Lastly, I think it is important to comment on the fact that many of you ‘fallists’ completely ignore the other forms of higher education in your quest to get yourselves a free ride. Pray tell, are you saying going to university should be free but attending a technical/FET college should not?

  2. Javeria says

    I refuse to spend my hard earned income in taxes to fund an undeserving student who thinks that demanding and pillaging and burning things down is the answer. This is not the way forward and I commend UKZN for refusing to give in. You make a terrible point that is poorly researched and shows your lack of understanding of how the world works.

  3. Quincy says

    While I agree with most of the student’s articles and perspectives I’ve read on VOX, I have to say that this one shows a lack of understanding in places (while it makes valid points too).

    I certainly agree the government should better prioritise education, at all levels. However, if you think you can do that by taxing the wealthy more than they already are, think again and register for economics 101!

    As a brief lesson, in essence, the wealthy create wealth for others in a multitude of ways (this applies more in SA than most places), by increasing their taxes (from already internationally high levels) you will be both scaring them away and discouraging their further efforts locally, thereby reducing SA tax income and economic growth in the medium and long term. This becomes an even larger problem when we have an unstable political and economic climate, as we do.

    It comes back to the same idea as the belief that you can make black people wealthier in SA by making white people poorer and making white companies operate under restrictive, tedious laws (that black companies then also have to deal with to a great extent). Or shall we be direct and equate that to trying to make poor people wealthier by making richer people poorer. On the contrary, any honest economist knows that the opposite is true.

    How about reducing the spiralling public servant salaries and numbers (relatively one of the highest in the world)? Even taking social funding away from other areas and directing it to the MOST important, education, might be a better solution.

  4. therealmidnite says

    Ahhh, but nuclear power benefits politicians, and free education doesn’t, does it?

    You were far too kind to corporates… “strings” doesn’t begin to describe it. But then government itself is no different.

  5. therealmidnite says

    Err… this one. I pursued higher “education” (if I can call it that) without a thought for “earning a living”. People end up in higher education for plenty of reasons – “Earning a living” can actually be a rare one (depending on where you go, I suppose).

    And nobody said that corporate interests and positive social outcomes can’t align… they align all the time (for rich people, that is).

  6. Dylan says

    Some good points made. Another area government could “re-prioritse” (to quote Blade Nzimande) fund from is from the R1 trillion the government has proposed to spend on a nuclear deal with Russia (about 20 times what they have proposed to spend on higher education in 2017 / 2018), even though numerous experts in the field have pointed to this being needlessly expensive at a time when solar and wind energy is becoming more far more affordable and when projected electricity needs are proving lower than previously predicted. The problem there is that the deal is set to benefit a company named Oakbay (owned by the Guptas and President Zuma’s son). The company bought the Shiva uranium mine in 2010 at a price considered even lower than the low price it was placed at due to being deemed unprofitable. However, a massive new nuclear program would bring in a massive profit for this politically connected elite, as well as aiding Zuma’s political ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

    http://businesstech.co.za/news/government/124993/zuma-the-guptas-and-south-africas-r1-trillion-nuclear-plans/

  7. Dylan Scott says

    Oh and the above is written by a different Dylan than that wrote the first reply, who seems to be somewhat unaware as to the legacy of racial unequality and preferential treatment of white South Africans over the past several decades, which has created an issue of massive racial inequality. The Afrikaner Broederbond, hut and dog tax, inferior Bantu education and job reservations for whites are just a few examples. That is not to say that all whites are rich (a small majority are poor despite a legacy of privileging) and a small black elite has emerged and a black middle class is growing. But to dismiss black tax simply because some white South Africans also do struggle, although at a far lower rate proportionately, seems to be missing a significant societal problem because of rarer exceptions to the general rule.

    1. Dylan Scott says

      *small minority of white not small majority. As backed by stats SA 2010 (http://www.statssa.gov.za/publications/P02112/P021122010.pdf – see page viii)

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