#FeesMustFall: Developments in South African Fees Struggles

by Dylan Barry, a post-graduate physics student at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. He headed up the #FeesMustFall News Media task team in 2015, and the #FeesMustFall Economic Research task team in 2016 at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is a Youth Ambassador for the GEM Report’s Right to Education Campaign that calls on young people to come together, exercise their collective voice, and call on governments to make sure the right to education is enforced.

After two years of mass national #FeesMustFall protests, which I described in an earlier post on this blog, the year 2017 has been a relatively calm one on South Africa’s university campuses. However, despite the lack of protest, the last few weeks have been significant for South African higher education. This weekend, South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma, announced that the state would commit to subsidise free higher education for poor and working class students from 2018. The announcement confirmed rumours that had circulated since November when an article in South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper suggested that President Zuma had attempted to announce the provision of free education across the board as early as February of this year.

The plan President Zuma is allegedly promoting is the brainchild of Mukhove Morris Masutha, a former student activist and Wits Student Representative Council President in 2011. It was later reported by South Africa’s News24 that Mr. Masutha was on the payroll of the State Security Agency (SSA) as a student activist, introducing complexity into interpretations of South African events. In essence his proposed plan involves the reallocation of R40 billion (US$3 billion) from elsewhere in South Africa’s budget, which is already burdened with a R50.8 billion shortfall.

The proposal stands in stark contrast, not only to the recommendations made by education academics and state institutions, but also to proposals made by a group of students and academics mandated by protesting students at Wits to develop a financial model for free higher education. The latter attempted to avoid a large reallocation of funds from elsewhere in the budget, arguing for the redistribution of some of the education system’s infrastructure costs to the private sector and to fund increases in higher education through targeted tax increases. By contrast, the proposal risked negatively affecting anti-poverty programs, placing student needs in tension with the needs of the poor.

It was against this backdrop that President Zuma released the long awaited report of the Heher Commission into the Feasibility of Fee-Free Higher Education and Training in South Africa. The report had been submitted to him in June in accordance with the commission’s extended investigation period, but he kept the report from public release until mid-November. After more than a year of public hearings and expert testimony, the 748-page report gives a detailed breakdown of the issues across South Africa’s higher education system. It has a particularly detailed section on the failures of the existing National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). With regards to the feasibility of fee-free education the commission has this to say:

“Notwithstanding that higher education is regarded as an apex priority for the purposes of the National Development Plan and in the allocation of resources, there is insufficient financial capacity in the state to provide totally free higher education and training to all who are unable to afford it, let alone to all students, whether in need or not. Nor for the reasons set out in the Report is the provision of totally free higher education, necessarily in the best interests of the expansion of South Africa’s higher education and training sector.”

The Commission thereafter recommended that the existing state student financial aid system be replaced with a cost-sharing model for funding university students. It recommended that this take the form of an Income Contingent Loan (ICL) scheme for all students, in which the state partners with the private financial sector to make loans, up to the full cost of study, available to students. The state would be obligated to either purchase these loans or guarantee them, and the legislation would be amended so that the loans would be collected on through the South African Revenue Service (SARS), responsible for tax collection.

Finally, this weekend, on the opening day of the 54th African National Congress (ANC) elective conference, the South African Presidency released a press statement announcing that it would be committing to subsidising free higher education for poor and working class students from 2018. Defining poor and working class students as those students from families earning less than R350 000 per annum in household income, this policy would extend fully subsidised higher education to eligible students in more than 90% of South African households. Explicitly committing to supporting students through grants and not loans, the announcement contrasts directly with the recommendations of the Heher Commission of Inquiry.

These developments in South Africa’s higher education landscape have perhaps tellingly all happened while students have been busy preparing for and writing their final exams. This has made it difficult to gauge broad student responses to either the findings and recommendations of the Heher Commission or President Zuma’s free education announcement. What will happen next is anyone’s guess, but the recent insights into the tensions between the Presidency and National Treasury suggest that the implementation of free education will not be without significant opposition. With the spectre of two years of national #FeesMustFall student protests in the background, and internal power struggles within the ANC that will to determine the direction of the country for quite some time, the stakes remain high. One way or the other, 2018 looks set to be a defining year for South African higher education.

The GEM Report’s #WhosAccountable campaign is an important opportunity for youth to come together and assert that access to higher education is a constitutional right that should not be denied on the basis of financial ability; however, what the current South African context illustrates is that it must be planned for in ways that do not bring it in tension with broader anti-poverty initiatives. I encourage you all to visit the campaign website, sign the petition, get involved online, and share your voice through the video campaign.

Over the coming weeks the World Education Blog will feature the voices of the GEM Reports Youth Ambassadors for its Right to Education Campaign. The series will highlight the essential role that students and youth have and can play in holding governments to account for providing inclusive, equitable and quality education for all, and share excerpts from the GEM Report’s Right to Education Campaign


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