Our tertiary education in peril


HERE we go again. The annual depressing spectacle of our young people having running battles with the police as they demand fee free tertiary education. The worrying fact is that, despite the longevity of the problem, there appears to be no lasting solution in sight.

This year, the annual ritual has led to the tragic police shooting to death of Mthokozisi Ntumba, who was just a bystander who had no role in the protests.

The truth of the matter is that the state has no money. Corruption, theft and maladministration have robbed all spheres of the state of resources necessary to sustain them. Health, social development, education, transport, policing, civil servants remuneration and others have all seen budget cuts. If there was proof needed to demonstrate the devastating effects of corruption, the evidence is staring us in the face. 

However, lamentations about corruption would not immediately solve the ongoing crisis in higher education. Our young are being traumatized and brutalized right now.

The panic response of the state was to order the department of higher education to reprioritize its budget to accommodate more students through the National Students Financial Aid Scheme, NSFAS. What this means is that other aspects of higher education would have their budgets cut or taken away altogether.

These might include university subsidies to hire academics and other staff; the purchase of books for libraries; the purchase of expensive laboratory equipment for science, engineering and medical training; the funding of research for academics and post-graduate students; the purchase or subscription to essential academic journals in all fields of study and the general essential maintenance of the university infrastructure.

The overall impact of this would be the general deterioration of the quality of public higher education in the country and the obvious mediocrity of our graduates.

This would most probably encourage the growth of the private university sector which would accommodate children of the rich. So, most of the fee-paying students would leave, reducing further the sources of income for public universities. The best brains in academia would leave the public higher education universities for the private ones.

There is no escaping the conclusion that this would exacerbate inequality in South Africa. Besides, the beauty of public higher education is that the children of millionaires can sit side-by-side with those of the poor, and in the process, come to know and appreciate one another better. This would stand them in good stead when they later go into the world of work and help build a better country.

There is no gainsaying we need a long-lasting funding solution for our tertiary students. We might start by fixing the basic education sector so that we cut down on students who go to university under-prepared and cannot cope. They end up clogging the pipeline and causing the academic exclusion phenomenon. 

On a funding model for tertiary education, the first price would be to fashion a system which would allow all university students, regardless of the financial position of their parents, to receive fee free education. This could be done through taxation arrangements that would make this possible.

There are countries in the world where higher taxes are borne with grace if the state delivers good and worthwhile services, including education. Inter alia, it would require that we banish corruption and theft in our public life.

Alternatively, we might consider a comprehensive loan system that involves the state, banks and other financial institutions to ensure a sustainable funding model for our young. We should eschew populist posturing and fashion a system that works.

Being the most unequal society in the world that we are, we need to educate, up to tertiary level, as many of our youth as possible to reduce poverty and unemployment.

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