Free tertiary education for all? Really?

Protesting students at Stellenbosch University continue to disrupt campus activities.

The Freedom Charter, adopted by the Congress of the People at Kliptown June 25 and 26 1955 served the noble purpose of uniting and inspiring the progressive forces for change, that strove mightily for decades against a seemingly indestructible apartheid state.

In the darkest days of the struggle, this inspiring document gave hope to those who continued the fight, even when all seemed lost, that if and when apartheid was defeated, we would have a road map for our future, a set of guiding principles that would allow us to chart a just course for our collective future, as a nation united in our diversity.

And it is in this very document, so frequently waved under our noses by politicians whose intentions are more self- than nation-serving, we find what was intended for our education system, and more importantly, what should be free and what not.

The section of the Freedom Charter which deals with education, reads as follows:

“Education shall be free, compulsory and universal for all children:

“Higher education and training shall be open to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit;”

What is quite clear, is the intention to provide free education to all children up to and including secondary school level. It is silent on whether this means to Grade 12, or only up to the compulsory minimum schooling grade or age, currently Grade 9 or age 15.

What is equally clear, is that free tertiary education and technical training was not intended to be universal, nor was it intended to be a right, and the key phrase we must examine is “open to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit.”

The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines scholarship thus: “an amount of money given by a school, college, university, or other organization to pay for the studies of a person with great ability but little money” and it defines merit thus: “the quality of being good and deserving praise.”

What is also clear in the definition of scholarship is the understanding that the money which constitutes a scholarship is given with no expectation of repayment.

Read together with the extract from the Freedom Charter, it is quite clear that while it was intended that tertiary education and technical training would be funded by the state, what is also clear, is that it is not universally open to all, nor is it intended as a right.

This is underpinned by Section 29 of our Bill of Rights which reads:

“Everyone has a right …. to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible;”

With the best will in the world, it is impossible to thus infer that either the Freedom Charter or the Bill of Rights promises free education to all up to tertiary level, irrespective of merit.

The #FeesMustFall campaign needs to take a long hard look at itself. By demanding free tertiary for all (which includes those who can afford to pay), it is consigning those at primary and secondary level to continued education penury, because it is essentially exhorting government to rob Peter to pay Paul.

Where else will the money come from but elsewhere in the education budget, or from one of the may social or grant programme s upon which so many South Africans rely for their very subsistence?

It is quite clear, and laudable too, that tertiary education be funded by scholarship, but only for candidates who have demonstrated that they have academic capacity to succeed.

And whereas a scholarship is not intended to be repaid, in the interests of an appropriate return on educational investment, it makes sense that recipients be held to an acceptable standard of academic achievement in order for the funds to continue to flow from year to year.

In other words, if you don’t pass either a module or a year, and you must repeat, you fund it yourself.

The 2016 Fees Commission has yet to finish its works and deliver its report, but it is clear from what it has thus far said, that unconditionally free tertiary education for all will not be part of its recommendations.

In particular, it points out that the quality of tertiary education will decline, because of insufficiency of available funds.

The #FeesMustFall campaign’s disingenuous citing of Denmark and Finland as models for free tertiary education aside, even if it were possible, unless our economic growth picks up to around five percent, and pretty damn quickly, all we’d end up with is the most highly educated unemployed workforce in the world.