Why free education for all is not as obviously elitist as they say

TO MOLEFE argues that education forms parts of a rights floor that everyone is entitled to and no one should be arbitrarily denied.

There is a facile argument doing the rounds that the call for free education for all is inarguably inequitable and elitist as those who can afford to pay will get away with not paying. The otherwise seemingly thoughtful people who advance this lazy argument, like Business Day columnist Steven Friedman and the national executive committee of the ANC, have chosen to ignore that policy does not operate in isolation nor do policy headlines tell the full story.

They have also chosen to ignore what students campaigning for universal free education are actually saying, along with the fact that education in our society is not like any other good or service.

Let me start first with the first two points about policy.

Take VAT, for example, a flat 14% sales tax everyone pays. If that headline is all you read of the policy, then you might come to the incorrect conclusion that the tax grows inequality because everyone pays the same percentage no matter their income.

But reading beyond the headline reveals that certain basic food items like brown bread and fruits and vegetables are zero rated (i.e. taxed at 0%), and other items such as education and transport are exempt from the tax. These items have been excluded from the normal treatment because they “are bought more frequently or predominantly by poorer households”, according to National Treasury (pdf). The intent, therefore, is to make this otherwise inequitable policy have a zero net effect on inequality or contribute to its decrease. VAT also operates within a fiscal framework whose rich-to-poor redistributive effect should also be looked at overall to get a complete picture.

We can debate how effective zero rating has been as a pro-poor policy, and how redistributive South Africa’s fiscal framework actually is. But the point remains: judging a policy proposal by its headline, or without considering where and how it fits into the overall policy framework is comically asinine. And it is tragic when analyses based on such a superficial reading are taken seriously by people who think themselves serious thinkers.

Friedman cites as a cautionary tale the example of Brazil, whose free education policy he says has allowed the kids of the wealthy (who score better in admission tests because they’re better educated) to dominate the limited number of places available in the country’s best public universities.

But we do not have to make the same admissions policy choice. In fact, South Africa has so far tried to do the exact opposite. The admissions policies at our public universities attempt to “compensate”, to varying degrees, qualifying applicants from poorer schools and communities for the injustice they’ve been dealt. Arguably this has not gone far enough, but that it exists is enough to render the Brazil example interesting and appalling, but neither comparable nor relevant to the South African reality.

Friedman also says free education for all foregoes, as funding source for higher education institutions, fees from those from families who can pay.

Well, yes. Perhaps it does. But this has more to do with the role of education in our society than Friedman’s imagined and unwarranted notion that “campaigners (for universal free education) are less inclined to look at whether demands benefit the better off at the expense of the poor”.

In our society, education is a fundamental right. It is one of a basket of other fundamental rights that have been declared so because, when realised, they allow the individual to exercise their full agency and citizenship — should they be willing and so wish — among a society of others doing the same. Should these fundamental rights not be made real for all citizens, our society will not be a full democracy.

At least that’s the theory behind the liberal democratic framework that is the basis of our society. I find the framework deeply problematic for its basis in individualism — but that’s a topic for another day.

The bottom line is that in South Africa, education forms parts of a rights floor that everyone is entitled to and no one should be arbitrarily denied. Education is part of an inheritance at birth every South African is granted, no matter their colour or socioeconomic position.

Expecting that people pay for this birthright should be the exception, not the norm that it currently is. The only reason we expect that people pay is because resources are supposedly scarce — another point I disagree with but also have to shelve for another day. So, because resources are supposedly scarce and because we have entrusted the state with the powers and obligations to mobilise resources to realise these fundamental rights for all, there are trade offs to be made.

The state can reasonably expect, within this paradigm, that those with resources enough either realise these fundamental rights for themselves or contribute a portion of “their” resources so that it may make the rights real in the lives of others. But direct payment for public services is only one of the ways to mobilise resources to cover the cost of providing the service.

A more equitable and non-exclusionary way to mobilise resources for public services that flow from fundamental rights is to have recipients of the service pay when they begin deriving value from it, based on the value they derive from it. In other words, a tax on income that increases with income — a progressive income tax.

Our personal income tax (PIT) system is progressive, but Wits students calling for universal free education argue that is not progressive enough. As one of their proposals to fund free education for all, they say that PIT rates for the wealthiest should be increased — as should taxes on wealth.

Under the current model of pay now, derive value later, students and their families are burdened unfairly with carrying the costs between when education is paid for and delivered, and the break-even point when a graduate’s earnings recoup the costs of education. Black graduates and their families have this worse. Even though graduate unemployment is relatively low, black university graduates are more likely to be unemployed, further underlining the structurally racist nature of fees for education.

Graduates are also not the not only ones to derive value from their education, so Wits students are rightly demanding that other beneficiaries pay, too. To fund universal free education, they say corporate tax rates should be increased to 30%, and corporates should contribute to a fund for university infrastructure.

So it is clear that students calling for universal free education are actively engaged in thinking deeply about what education signifies in our society, and how it can be made accessible to all and funded most equitably. Too bad the older commentariat, perhaps from ego or a pending sense of irrelevance, aren’t as thoughtfully engaged.

Read also:
– Executive summary of the free education model put forward by Wits students.
– Debunking misconceptions surrounding free education“, by Jameel Abdulla.

This post originally appeared on Medium.com and is republished here with permission. 

TO Molefe is the author of For Blacks Only and Other Ways of Being, a soon-to-be-published collection of personal essays guided by black consciousness, intersectional feminism and ubuntu.

Featured image by Ra’eesa Pather


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1 Comment

  1. Blake Player says

    Response to daily vox article:

    Dear TO Molefe,
    I found your article interesting, and a much needed alternative perspective on the issue of free (tertiary) education.
    I would like to offer some comments, and criticisms which I hope you will consider:
    I am going to start with two smaller areas of specific concern in your article, and then later raise the key point I would like to make in respect of the debate around free tertiary education.
    Your article does not seem to address the practicalities of implementing increased taxation on the wealthy, something which is very complicated and can easily result in a reduction in tax revenues if not properly analysed or timed. I would be quite sceptical of funding free education from increased taxation, especially given the precarious economic position in this country presently. I think if we were to rank the sources of funding for such a project in order of their benefit to cost ratio this would be very close to last on the list. Furthermore, you acknowledge the criticism that having free education for all foregoes a large source of funding from the wealthy which does not require additional burden on the state, but do not seem to deal with that and instead move on to other ideas. I am not intending to say you have not thought about that, but I would be interested in hearing why this does not seem to be an attractive option for you? Or perhaps it is?
    I certainly agree that if all poor individuals were expected to pay now and (maybe) derive the benefits later, this would drive the inequality gap further apart. However, this an oversimplification of the current system. Presently NSFAS and other student funding schemes (which are perhaps not sufficient, but none the less exist) fund more than 50% of students at poorer state universities e.g. UL and between 15-30% at wealthier universities e.g. UCT, UFS, UWC etc. [ref 1]. The point I am making is that NSFAS is a loan system where students will obtain education now and then pay this back later when they derive benefit from it, similar to your proposition on a progressive income tax. I thought this was not acknowledged when you mentioned the “current system.” The loan scheme also helps to ensure that individuals who derive direct benefit from their higher education also directly pay – i.e. pay for the private benefit. Wealthy families are in the most part prepared to pay now and realise the benefit later as the sacrifice, in relative terms to their incomes, is less and the burden is not as heavily carried as the poor. This is arguably fair, especially when it allows for more poor students to obtain state funding.
    The above were some smaller points which I hope you will find constructive. I would like to now move on to my key criticism of the free tertiary education for all demand:
    I am not entirely sure what you mean when you say “free education”. Do you refer to what the students are calling for – free tertiary education? Or, do you mean to refer to all education, from basic to tertiary? I am going to make the assumption that you mean tertiary, as this is the call from students and is most likely the idea which informed your writing.
    I am reluctant to support a call for free tertiary education before we have created an education system or foundation which allows for more equitable access to higher education. From research conducted on the 2008 matric class, which was released earlier this year, it is clear that the crisis in our education system stems not at the higher education level, but at the basic and secondary level [Ref 2]. Students who were able to access quintile 5 schools, because they could afford the fees, were nearly 4 times more likely to access any kind of undergraduate programme than the poorest 3 quintiles. The fees in the quintile 5 state schools are typically around R30 000 a year and are heavily subsidised by old pupils’ associations and other private income. The difference in the quality of education between a quintile 1 and a quintile 5 school is staggering. If we were to keep this gap in place and make tertiary education free, who would really benefit? The students who can afford to pay the fees for a quality secondary education (who are in most cases already in the high income brackets) and have a 45% chance of accessing an undergraduate degree, regardless of their pass mark? those with a mere 5 -14% chance of accessing it? What is encouraging is that those who achieve a bachelor’s pass have at minimum a 63% (q1) chance of accessing higher education and at best a 70% (q5) chance. Which means if we were able to increase the level of bachelors passes in our poorer schools, through say a drastically improved basic and secondary education funding system– we could well achieve more equitable access to higher education and reduce inequality, far more than we would if we simply build the roof on cracking foundations. I will not continue to go through the research, as it is adequately done in the reference below. The point being is that realising free tertiary education before we have even managed to sort out our foundation education would most likely have a negative impact on inequality and even limit the ability of the state to pursue a better basic education programme.
    I also question the mention of a right to higher education. This is not a fundamental right like dignity and access to emergency medical services. When I say this, please do not confuse having the right to have, and having the right to access. The two are very different, for instance the right to have is not contingent on being suitably qualified – the right to access is. In the case of a university education you have the right to apply and have your application evaluated fairly. Should you be found suitably qualified then you should be admitted and if not, you should not be. These qualifications themselves, as you mention are important, and universities attempt to make adjustments for those who obtained their results in less fortunate circumstances for this reason. So it is thus of great importance that we improve the means through which people, should they wish to obtain a degree, can qualify themselves so that they may realise their right to access to higher education. Making tertiary education free for a select group of already privileged people who have unequal access to it does not promote that fundamental right. If anything it prevents its realisation.
    I have extracted the section of the Bill of Rights from which you make the claim of a fundamental right:
    Everyone has the right ­
    a. to a basic education, including adult basic education; and
    b. to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.

    You will see that basic education is a right to have, which if we were to misapply state resources, would not be able to be made real for many. Further education is not a state responsibility to provide for everyone. It is said that is must be made accessible and available, but not given. Which is the point I made earlier about the difference between the right to have and the right to have access to. Perhaps eventually, when and if South Africa becomes a nation where we have a tax base large enough and a secondary education system which provides quality schooling and access to higher education we can undertake a project to have free tertiary education for all, like say Norway. However, we are not yet there, and a far more noble pursuit, which was called for in 2015, is that universities should receive more state funding so that it is more affordable, for the poor and middle class. We have already made progress on this and it is certainly something that we can continue to work on. But funding everyone for free is not a valid call at the moment, and something which cannot be realised until we have rectified the means to access higher education.
    I hope you find my comments and critique valuable. It is important that we all engage our mind about the issues at the moment and I hope this contributed to both our learning.
    Kind regards
    Blake Player

    Ref 1: http://www.nsfas.org.za/content/reports/NSFAS%20AR%202014-15.pdf
    Ref 2: https://nicspaull.com/2016/09/29/important-research-inputs-on-feesmustfall/

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