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