Free education is possible, says task team chair

23 June 2017 | Story Yusuf Omar. Photo Saadiq Behardien. Videos Saadiq Behardien.
Jameson Hall was packed as students and staff thronged to discuss the possibility of fee-free higher education.
Jameson Hall was packed as students and staff thronged to discuss the possibility of fee-free higher education.

The banner across Jameson Hall’s stage read, “Wages must rise; Fees must fall.”

While some 1 000 people had crammed into Jameson Hall to debate the feasibility of fee-free higher education, kicked off by a report-back from UCT’s Free Education Planning Group task team, the speakers made it clear that student and worker struggles at universities were intimately connected.

The task team has spent months studying options for fee-free higher education. They presented some of these funding models to the gathered crowd, which comprised students, staff members and newly insourced workers. The floor responded with a deluge of questions, ranging from whether the proposals considered the plight of African students from outside South Africa to the sustainability of the models and how ordinary students and staff could contribute to the project.

Ihsaan Bassier, who chairs the task team, presented the results of their research, which is contained in a detailed document titled Protesting Policy: Interrogating Free Decolonised Higher Education Funding.


The task team came up with six possible sources of funding, as per the table below.

Table from Protesting Policy: Interrogating Free Decolonised Higher Education Funding.

Bassier said that the state and universities’ response to the protests around fees had been a combination of “securitisation” and a funding model that did not “address most of the concerns that have come forward”.

Any potential student from a household that earns less than R122 000 per year theoretically qualifies for a National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) loan, yet some students who qualified were still denied funding, he said.

“The NSFAS system is broken,” he said, pointing to data displayed in Protesting Policy. “There’s underfunding, people do not get enough funding, and people are rejected even though they qualify for NSFAS.”

Moreover, nearly 70% of South African households earn less than R122 000 per year.

“Yet only 25% of our university students are covered. So there’s a lot of students that should be in this university that aren’t and are excluded by the various systems, including because of the financial barriers.”

It’s not just fees that exclude

All of that was even before students entered university. Once registered at a university, poorer students were still far more likely to drop out, said Bassier.

“That’s because poorer students have to perform their poverty in front of various NSFAS committees and forms; there’s debt slavery and there’s black tax. All these things put pressure on poor students to increase the dropout rates.”

In sum, fees excluded poorer black students, argued Bassier.

But in the context of free, decolonised education, it wasn’t just fees that excluded.

“It becomes clear that the entire higher education system, from colonial times to now, has been engineered to reproduce a very small, mostly white elite and to keep poor black masses trapped and unable to access the higher education system. This needs to be decolonised.”

That need to decolonise extended to the basic education system, too.

“For the poorest 60% of schools – so, most schools in the country – a learner in Grade 9 is actually, in terms of learning ability, only in Grade 4,” said Bassier, to an audible hush in the huge hall.

So when talking about free decolonised education, he said, one needs to speak about a decolonisation that resolves inequalities in both higher and basic education, and in broader society. Moreover, it needs to tackle issues such as the commodification of education.

“How is it that the workers who clean our classrooms are not able to learn in those same classrooms?” he asked.


Can higher education be done differently?

Universities in Argentina and Brazil have integrated the higher education system within the communities they serve, rather than “on a mountain as we have here”, said Bassier. Those universities are truly open to the public and “decommodified”.

But the South African government’s proposed solution, the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP), did not take seriously “at all” the calls for decolonisation, proposed little by way of structural changes and was merely a “boosted” NSFAS.

“Our analysis shows that what ISFAP is promising, that more students will be covered under this new financial aid system, is unlikely to arise. It’s unlikely that the government is able to get this funding because what it is essentially relying on is voluntary donations from corporates, which we are very sceptical will come forward.”

Bassier also bemoaned the “tax break” given to corporates in recent years, with corporate tax falling from 35% to 28% in 2012.

If corporate tax was increased by only 3.5%, that would put enough extra money in state coffers to fund fee-free higher education, said Bassier.

One speaker suggested that South Africa’s lawmakers look into a model where taxpayers decide directly where part of their tax money would go – with the idea that many would be willing to pay more if they knew their tax would be funding education, for example.

Ma’Nozizwe, a worker leader who was at the forefront of the campaign to end outsourcing at UCT, implored those gathered not to “forget about the workers” at UCT.

“Wages must rise,” she said, and rapturous applause followed her declaration that workers were demanding R16 000 a month after deductions.

“Every day, early in the morning, we are here, raining or not,” she added. “We make sure that venues are clean, that the food is there for the children. You have to change the way you are doing things, [UCT].”

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