#FeesMustFall: good call, badly executed

dalogoI have been struggling to decide how I feel about the student protests. I have feel a deep sympathy for the students and support their demand to be heard. I have also felt rather ashamed at what a mess we, the adults, have made of things. But then I have also been appalled by the behaviour of some of the students, which at times has bordered on the barbaric.

It was in this context that I was so relieved to read Mmusi Maimane’s weekly newsletter, which is at once deeply sensitive and absolutely rational.

mmusimaimaneThis is what the leader of the opposition said:

Free university education is the ultimate agenda of the #FeesMustFall movement. As attractive as that notion seems, especially given South Africa’s cruel history of repression in education, it is simply not in our country’s nor even our students’ best interests. However, the students are absolutely correct in demanding far greater state support to universities. Because certainly, every qualifying student should and could have full access, regardless of their ability to pay.

No qualifying student should ever be excluded from obtaining a tertiary education on the basis of financial need. And yet poor students are being excluded on a large scale and with devastating consequences, because state funding to universities is wholly inadequate, having been in decline for many years. Why? Because our government long ago stopped caring about young people and their plight.

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No end in sight: The #FeesMustFall movement disrupted the medium-term budget speech in Parliament last October
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Taking the battle on to the streets last year

The week has seen a wave of disruptive and destructive protests by a small minority of students, sparked by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s pronouncement this week on 2017 fee increases.

Essentially, universities will be left to devise their own fee structures, within the constraint of a maximum increase of 8% (the figure that universities themselves submitted as being the minimum required in order to maintain current standards), and the state will cover the fee increase for all students with household income below R600 000.

Despite government’s woeful handling of this spiralling crisis to date, three positive conclusions can be drawn from this announcement, all of them very much in the best interests of South Africa and our students: it shows a respect for university autonomy (although the main motivation was more likely to deflect responsibility); it shows a commitment to fairness, through using fee income from richer students to cross-subsidize poorer students; and it shows a commitment to extend state support to middle-income students, the so-called “missing middle”.

So it is ironic that these positive indications have provoked disruptive and destructive protest that effectively seeks a subsidy for the rich. The reality is that a policy of free (fully state-funded) education for all would not produce an optimal outcome for South Africa or our students, and we’ll all end up losing, but as usual, the poor will lose most.

In SA’s context of high inequality and scarce public resources, the policy would be regressive, because public funds that could be spent on poverty alleviation would instead be paying for an individual’s future higher income stream. This is especially regressive in the case of high-income students. But it is also the case for students who are poor now but will be rich once they graduate.

Exempting the wealthy from fees would put unnecessary pressure on the fiscus, and remove all opportunities for universities to cross-subsidize poorer students with the fees of richer students. It would also reduce the funding available to universities and the quality of education offered.

So collecting fees from the rich while focusing on ensuring access for poor and middle-income students is a better policy approach. The argument for fees is supported by basic economic theory, since a university education is both a public good, benefitting the general public through economic growth, improved medical services and so on, and a private good, benefitting the individual through a higher future income stream.

The students’ underlying message, though, is that higher education is severely underfunded. And they are correct: state grants to universities have fallen dramatically since 2000. This is the root of the problem, and the true source of student anger and frustration.

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Mmusi Maimane’s weekly newsletter

Essentially, universities are trapped in a vicious cycle in which falling state support has led to unsustainable fee increases, which have led to high failure and dropout rates (exacerbated by our dysfunctional basic education system) and low NSFAS loan recovery rates, making government increasingly unwilling to invest in universities.

This vicious cycle can and must be broken by restoring state subsidies to an appropriate level as a matter of urgency. The state should also fund NSFAS, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, to the level where it can provide full loans (tuition, books and living costs) to all poor students and proportional loans, tiered according to need, to middle income students who can only afford to pay a portion of their fees. But universities should still collect fees from all who can afford them, and NSFAS should aim for a high loan recovery rate, possibly administered by SARS.

The effect of this approach would be to make university “free at the point of access” to poor students, while still enabling universities to retain a high level of funding and quality. It would be progressive, as the rich will be paying their own fees, and the poor will only pay once they are graduates earning their higher income stream.

This level of state support to universities is definitely achievable, but it requires government to drop its anti-intellectual agenda and redirect funds from wasteful expenditure on vanities like VIP security and bailing out SAA towards the higher education sector.

Current expenditure on higher education in SA is only about 0.64% of GDP. This is low by international standards, with many countries ranging from 1% to 4%. By way of example, Brazil spends 0.95% of GDP on higher education, India 1.2%, Ghana 1.44%, Malaysia 1.76%, Finland 2.18% and China 3%.

So these students are demanding the right thing, but in the wrong way. Nevertheless, their essential call – greater state support for universities and poor students – should be heeded. But, any disruptive, destructive or violent action should face the full force of the law.

Criminal behaviour is criminal behaviour, no matter where it plays out.

So the immediate response to the protests should be threefold: clamp down strongly on illegal behaviour; ramp up the budget for both universities and NSFAS in line with other countries; and reform NSFAS to enable full access and better loan recovery.

But to get from good to great, we must remove the greatest obstacle of all: a government that has failed young people. It has failed to provide them with a quality basic education system. It has failed to enable a growing, job-creating economy. It has failed to recognize that its labour legislation regime excludes young people from the workplace. And it has failed to provide other post-schooling options in training and vocational colleges, internships and apprenticeships.

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UCT: ‘Universities are precious national assets’. Pic: UCT website

The ANC’s uncaring and indeed reckless attitude to the plight of young people is summed up by Secretary General Gwede Mantashe’s suggestion this week that universities should be closed for six months to teach students “the importance of higher education”. This idea is irrational, irresponsible and indicting on so many levels, not least because the crisis stems from government’s own failure to appreciate the value of higher education. But also because he would so easily jeopardise the futures of the vast majority of students and cripple our universities, just to punish a small group of radicals.

Our universities are precious national assets and we must give them the funding and protection they need in order to thrive – for the benefit of all South Africans and all our students, current and future. Our youth are our most precious asset of all and they deserve a government that treats them as such. Let’s make it happen in 2019.

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Siobhan Cassidy

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