Free higher education won’t be free


The range of comments on the question of free higher education published in the media are interesting but they all lack peer review. In particular, the assertions of facts, numbers and costs of completely free higher education have to be evaluated by independent education specialists. That has not been done.

The major fault with every document produced by people favouring #FeesMustFall is that the prior question of justification for the increased allocation of resources to higher education at a national level is not posed. This weakens the whole campaign.

If they ever come to ask this equity or social justice question, #FeesMustFall activists will discover that there are persuasive arguments that free higher education will be regressive. In all national populations it involves a transfer of resources from lower down the income distribution scale up towards higher-income receivers.

In every higher education system most students graduate and enter the upper echelons of the labour force. This places graduates well up in the national distribution of earned income. Most important from a social justice perspective, university graduates receive considerably more income than does the median tax payer.

This observation applies to direct taxation in the form of personal income tax, company or corporate tax, wealth taxes and estate duty. But the regressive nature of the income transfer to university graduates is even more striking when attention is directed to indirect taxation such as value-added tax, fuel levies, import and excise duties and a large set of other user charges.

These taxes are not levied directly on liable persons or their income-generating entities. Yet their defining characteristic is that ultimately such taxes are paid by all consumers, irrespective of their levels of income.

Returning to the demand for free higher education, this fact of regressive transfer in its financing by the state is a compelling reason why there are so few international examples of free higher education. This applies particularly in low-and medium-income countries, of which South Africa is one. As a result, the international literature is generally sceptical of, even hostile towards, the demands for free higher education. This is true also for higher education component costs, such as tuition and facilities supplied free to students.

So free higher education should be judged as inherently regressive and therefore contributing to inequality. Of course no nation state pursues inequality as an open objective of policy. The ethical and political reasons are unambiguous.

One widely cited example is Australia, where free higher education was decisively rejected in recent decades. When a student loan scheme was under debate about 20 years ago, the opponents of free higher education coined the slogan: “Why should bus drivers pay for the education of lawyers?” Why indeed? Today Australia possesses one of the most successful national student loan schemes for this reason.

In practice, there are of course individual students 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 of once-enrolled students end up burdened by debt, obtained either from private-sector sources such as banks and the state under a loan system.

But these individuals, when entering higher education from poor households — and who are eligible for subsidy from state sources — must be treated on a case-by-case basis. They have to be judged legitimate or not legitimate for free higher education provided by government. But then each case must be decided upon based on its own merits. Viewed as a usually small group, they do not justify a system of free higher education that is implemented nationally.

The main thrust of this article is that the question of social justice has to be fundamental to the #FeesMustFall debate. The fact that it is ignored in South Africa is a fatal weakness in the whole campaign for free higher education study.

If there are circumstances specific to the South African higher education system that might justify the devotion of more resources to post-school education, then these circumstances must be explained up front and in detail. No free education planning groups at universities appear to have done so.

Perhaps there is a cultural tradition among black South Africans that favours free higher education. This cultural tradition might have its roots in attitudes towards free higher education in countries in the former Soviet Union, the nations of Central and Eastern Europe in the Soviet orbituntil 1989, as well as in the aspiring African socialist countries elsewhere on this continent about 40 years ago.

In South Africa, the Freedom Charter is a possible inspiration for the case for free higher education but there is no evidence of this source of inspiration in present student activism.

One suggestive historical example, some 10 or more years ago from a large African country north of South Africa, must be researched and brought into the discussion.

The government there was faced with similar student-led demands for additional expenditure on post-school education. In response the state minister concerned with higher education funding adopted an imaginative tactic. He arranged for student leaders to appear on national television to explain the case for a larger allocation of state resources. The audience would have included the extended families of the university students living in rural areas as well as elsewhere.

Not one of the student leaders and activists took up the invitation. What are the lessons to be learned from this case for us here in South Africa?

Another serious issue, but not related to the ethical concern already raised, is that history shows that time and time again fiscal authorities in a country short of revenue simply cut the allocation to post-school education. Universities are not important in the competition for resources.

A high likelihood of chronic under-funding has to be recognised by the #FeesMustFall activists. But this doesn’t seems to be the case.

Finally, universities appear to be unconcerned that the student groups they deal with institutionally are not presenting a consistent ethical, as well as politically strategic, dimension to the set of issues they raise. This is a serious weakness because of the consequences in the long run.

A reversal of this attitude is essential for rational policies and for peace in higher education.

Every university has a holistic responsibility to clarify the values by which it functions — a responsibility to all its members, as well as to the concerned public outside. Thus the neglect of the dimension of social justice in the free higher education debate massively undermines it.

Sean Archer is retired from the University of Cape Town’s school of economics and is a research associate at the university

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