Response to UCT Free Education Planning Group documents

15 May 2017 | Emer Assoc Prof Sean Archer

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors in their private capacity; they do not represent or reflect the views, opinions or policies of the University of Cape Town or the Communication and Marketing Department.

The range of documents circulated by UCT media on the question of free higher education are interesting but they all lack peer review. In particular, the assertions of fact and the calculations of numbers and costs of completely free HE, or of its various component costs, must be evaluated by independent experts.

Interested members of the wider UCT community should anticipate and request nothing less than that such a review of all relevant documents will take place before any institutional policy on free HE education is decided by UCT management.

Yet the major fault with every document produced by FMF protagonists is that the prior question of justification for the increased allocation of resources to higher education is simply not posed anywhere. This is a fatal weakness in the entire national campaign by FMF.

FMF activists will discover that there are persuasive arguments that free HE will usually be regressive. It involves a transfer of resources from low down the income distribution scale towards higher income receivers in most, but probably all, national populations. In every HE system the bulk of students graduate, and further the bulk of these graduates eventually enter the upper echelons of the labour force in every country. This places them well up in the top deciles of the national distribution of earned income.

In particular, university graduates receive considerably more income than does the median tax-payer, or the median tax bracket, who inhabit the middle of the array of taxable income levels. This applies to direct taxation like personal income tax, company or corporate tax, wealth taxes, estate duty and the like.

But the regressive nature of the transfer to university graduates is even more striking when attention is directed to indirect taxation like VAT, fuel levies, import and excise duties and a large array of charges by the state that are not levied on liable persons or corporate entities, but ultimately are paid by all citizens irrespective of their levels of income.

This fact of regressive transfer is probably the most influential reason why international examples of free HE are so few and far between. This is so particularly in low and medium income per capita countries, of which South Africa is one. As a result, the international literature is generally sceptical, or even hostile, to the demands for free HE or even for certain of its components.

Of course there are individuals who fall through the net, who do not graduate and so miss becoming high-earning members of a national labour force. As a consequence, a number end up as burdened by debt, whether from private sources like banks or from the state under a tertiary education loan system. But these individuals, together with entering HE students from poor households who are subsidised, must be treated as personal cases that are legitimate or not legitimate for subsidy from government judged each on their own merits. As a group they certainly do not constitute a justification for free HE throughout a national system.

The main criticism in this comment is that the question of social justice should be fundamental to the FMF campaign, and the fact that it is ignored in the deliberations is a potentially fatal weakness to the whole enterprise in pursuit of free or subsidised costs of HE study. If there are circumstances specific to South African higher education which might justify a claim for more after-school education resources then these circumstances must be explained up-front and in detail.

It is also possible, it must be conceded, that there is a cultural tradition amongst black South Africans which favours free higher education. This is or was the case once in certain other national arenas of decision, like the Soviet Union, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe in the Soviet orbit up until 1989, as well as in the former African Socialist countries elsewhere on this continent. But if such a local cultural tradition exists then it must be argued for persuasively with the reasons for its adoption laid out clearly. That has not happened, neither in the national debate nor at UCT.

Some ten or more years ago a large African country north of us was faced with similar student-led demands for additional expenditure on post-school education from the fiscus. The government minister responsible arranged for student leaders to appear on national television to explain the case for a larger allocation to them. Not one of the student activists took up the invitation. Are there lessons here for us in SA?

This comment is spurred by the contents of UCT News [*] that was circulated on 5 May 2017. It should be clear that my main observation – the question of social justice being wholly ignored by FMF activists – is that UCT officially appears to be unconcerned that the group or groups that it supports institutionally are not presenting a consistent, logical as well as strategic dimension to the set of issues they raise.

In a future reply by UCT management I hope to be informed that this is not the case. That despite the lack of evidence, there are in fact vigorous internal debates going on about the moral and therefore political implications of the campaign for free higher education, both at UCT and nationally?

This is essential. After all, a university has a holistic responsibility to all its members, as well as to the concerned public outside.

Sean Archer is a retired member of the School of Economics and currently a Research Associate in that department.

Note: This page was updated at 13:30 on Thursday, 18 May 2017.

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