/ 9 July 2008

‘Poor will pay for free higher education’

The university vice-chancellors’ association, Higher Education South Africa (Hesa), has challenged the concept of free higher education, arguing that all South Africans, including the poor, will have to foot the bill.

The ANC-linked South African Students’ Congress (Sasco) and the South African Union of Students, (SAUS), which represents university SRCs, have called for free university education.

Hesa was expected to make its case in a paper to be presented at a SAUS conference on Thursday. The conference is exploring the possibility of free higher education.

The ANC’s Polokwane conference resolved that the government should progressively introduce free education for the poor up to undergraduate level.

Hesa representative Jody Cedras told the Mail & Guardian that a policy of ”free” higher education would benefit wealthy students and adversely affect the poor.

Said Cedras: ”There is no ‘free’ higher education. In practice it would be paid for by all citizens, including the permanently poor, through indirect taxes, whether or not they know they have been taxed.

”A big percentage of the beneficiaries of higher education are from the richer segments of society who can pay a portion of the costs of instruction.”

He cautioned that if South Africa worked towards a system of free higher education ”resources would be transferred from the fiscus to affluent families. Through taxation the poor would be made to pay for the education of the rich.”

Cedras said South Africa had a continuum of possibilities, including a wholly subsidised higher education system in which graduates are entirely at the service of the state.

Examples included the former Soviet Union, Japan after World War II and Cuba.

At the other end of the spectrum is entirely unsubsidised tertiary institutions, with universities being private and for-profit, and students customers. Such institutions generally have little to no research activity.

In the Von Humboldt model, used in Britain, the United States and Germany, institutions are partially funded by the state, which does not interfere in institutional governance, with students paying top-up fees.

Another model is a religious or corporate one in which a particular ideology or faith is propagated and education is free — but there is no academic freedom or institutional autonomy.

Cedras said that in South Africa in 2004 the average government subsidy for 16 higher education institutions amounted to 43%, while income from student fees averaged 28%, investment income 7,7% and income from contract research 5,6%.

Reasons for the imbalance included ”generally weak university/business relations, a limited industrial/ business base in South Africa, limited tax breaks for individuals and companies; limited research capacity for some universities; and lack of developed alumni and fundraising structures”.

In addition, government subsidies had been falling since 2000, when they comprised 49% of an institution’s total income.

Cedras said that while the government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme could not award loans to all applicants, universities had to find other ways of supporting students. Extra resources needed to be injected into the scheme.

He argued that universities had to become more entrepreneurial, ”learning to dance with multiple partners to reduce the dependency on singular state funding”.

This included building capacity to secure endowments from business and donors and working with ”many more” state departments to unlock state funding other than from the education department.

A survey by the M&G showed that few countries now offer free higher education — Cuba being a notable exception.

Simon McGrath, professor of international education and development at the University of Nottingham, said British universities charge up to £3 145 (about R48 000) a year in fees for British and European students.