macroafricaintel | South Africa: Free higher education is complicated

By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji

If you asked university officials whether they desired free education for the poor, they would probably answer in the affirmative. Ask them if it is sustainable under the government’s recently announced plan, they are not likely to be so sunny. What is probably feasible is a system whereby an obviously brilliant and promising student is not prevented from higher education because he or she is poor. If South Africa were abundantly wealthy, free education might not be potentially problematic. Sadly, the country is not. Not at the moment, at least. And if the palpable absence of the finance minister or his representative at a media briefing on the new policy in early January is anything to go by, the fiscal authorities are likely at their wits’ end to fund what was clearly a unilateral pronouncement by President Jacob Zuma.

As the new academic session begins, university authorities have announced they would not allow walk-in registrations. Ultranationalist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party leader, Julius Malema, had urged prospective students to simply turn up at any university of their choice for admission. It is not difficult to see the potential complications that this would cause. The authorities have disabused any such action by learners who just passed their qualifying exams (“matric”) – results for the class of 2017 were released in early January. Hitherto, those who could not afford varsity would have simply sought employment in jobs where a matric certificate suffices. With higher education now “free”, they are now able to pursue their dreams. Because Mr Zuma’s proclamation was impromptu, those who hitherto did not apply to universities due to financial constraints would have ordinarily needed to wait a year if disruptions are to be avoided. Unsurprisingly, the EFF, and understandably, the affected prospective students, would have none of it. To manage the situation, the authorities have instead advised that those who qualify should follow the normal application process; an online portal has been designated for the task.

China works
Free education, whether at the basic or higher level, is not novel. It has been tried in many jurisdictions. Swedes attend university for free, for instance. And their degrees are very competitive. So the policy does work. But Sweden is rich, South Africa is not. In their heyday, communist regimes also provided free higher education to their comrade citizens. They succeeded to some extent. The times were a signifcant motivation, though. There was a cold war between a mostly democratic west and a mostly communist east. To the extent that they were able to compete quite well with the west on many technological fronts suggest free education is not only feasible but does not necessarily stifle innovation. In other words, poor countries can successfully educate their citizens for free. To some extent. Because when you look at how the west and east have evolved, there is a strong case for the clearly more developed west’s capitalist model. What about China then? Well, it realised free higher education was sub-optimal after a while: it abolished the policy in 1985. Instead, poor Chinese who desire a university education compete for scholarships. And those with ample means began to have a choice in the early 1980s, when Chinese authorities allowed the establishment of private universities.

My heart, my head
To be clear, one is not in anyway suggesting that the majority of black South Africans be left out in the cold without the prospect of prosperity that higher education is supposed to provide, eventually; ideally. I recall quite well during my doctoral studies at a top South African university how frustrated, and in fact angry, some black South African students were at the very high fees their sponsors had to scrape to pay. But the success of western universities can be directly traced to students paying the economic cost of their education. And the means through which they acquire the funding are in part responsible for the high value placed on it. A loans system means a student upon graduation is incentivized to find employment or engage in some entrepreneurial venture to clear his or her indebtedness. It also means that employers must pay an economically viable wage. Market forces that have been found to engender optimal pricing for goods and services have also been found to serve the education system quite well. So as a practicing economist, I see how fraught with risks for the economy the new free education policy is. As an African who has witnessed the pains of many black South Africans, however, I desire that they are able to achieve their wildest dreams. I am conflicted.

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