Is #WitsFeesMustFall an opportunity to change South Africa’s future trajectory?

Economist AALIA CASSIM says the protests at Wits last week are a reminder that greater access to higher education is key to achieving a more equal South Africa. 

The Wits University shutdown this week is reminiscent of the past; a past I didn’t live through but still see the effects of today. Firstly, a non-violent “defiance campaign” and secondly, mass unity to compel leadership to change. Although, twenty years later, challenges in the education system remain in the form of a highly unequal schooling system and a tertiary education system that is inaccessible to the poor.

Higher education is of critical importance for emerging markets. Data from Statistics South Africa indicates that unemployment rates are significantly lower for those with tertiary education- about 7 percent of those with a Bachelors degree and 3 percent of those with a postgraduate degree are unemployed. In contrast, vocational training unemployment rates range from 13 to 20 percent and unemployment rates for those with just a matric are stark in comparison at around 25 percent. Simply put, graduates with tertiary education are far more likely to get a job.

This suggests that because tertiary education graduates are easily employed they’re contributing to the economy and are probably better off themselves in terms of income and as such, access to services. An investment into tertiary education on the part of the government is therefore an investment into the future of this country. A future that currently looks slightly dreary, both in terms of the economic growth trajectory and the persistence of income inequality that prevails.

The evidence of positive outcomes from investment in higher education and particularly in science, engineering and technology is well known. It is no coincidence that countries that have invested in these skills have yielded higher growth rates including China, South Korea and Malaysia, amongst others. To put this into perspective, of the proportion of university graduates enrolled, China enrols 7 times that of South Africa in maths, science and engineering. These skills are key to absorbing global knowledge, becoming competitive and innovation that makes a country and its people better off.

Government’s silence on this issue is a grave concern. We know that a large amount of funding is channeled into training and skills programmes. Business, however, has often suggested that graduates that come out of vocational colleges have to be retrained, as the skills they’ve acquired don’t actually match what the employers demand. The vocational education system is plagued with inefficiencies, in part because of funding but also in terms of capacity.

While not to undermine the importance of “fixing” the vocational training system and dedicating budget to this, if just 3-7 percent of those with tertiary education are unemployed then there’s a sense that the tertiary education is more effective. Whilst comparing the two types of higher education is simplistic as they cater for different markets and both serve a necessary role in society, increasing access to tertiary education is definitely going to make more people better off while still contributing positively to the economy. This is common sense (and also proven in academic literature). Of course increasing budgets and rearranging funds already committed to certain programmes is complicated, it is perhaps time that the “funders” become a bit more innovative and efficient with the education budget.

I commend the students who, over the past week, have actively stood up to Wits University management. This group is representative of a huge cohort of young people yearning for a better future, one with fewer imbalances and more equal opportunities. This is a wake-up call for the powers that be to facilitate change instead of making South Africa’s tertiary education system a constant reminder of its unjust history.

193x285q70Aalia-CassimAalia Cassim is an economist at the Development Policy Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.

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