By now everyone has heard President Jacob Zuma’s surprise announcement that students from poor and working-class families will receive grants for free higher education beginning in 2018. Some people have disregarded the announcement as a mere political ploy to begin the ANC’s 54th elective conference. Others have condemned the President’s announcement for going against the advice of the Heher Commission which recommended a loan-based solution to help students finance higher education. Sadly, there are many who, erroneously, are ecstatic about the announcement; and then there are the rest of us who consider it to be utterly laughable.
The first factor that makes the announcement ridiculous is that neither President Zuma nor Finance Minister Gigaba has been able to provide details about a source of funding for the proposal. Frankly, Zuma could promise students a holiday in Italy and a Maserati to boot, but no reasonable person would be excited about that announcement without evidence of the funding to support it.
We are told that more details will be released in February as part of the 2018 budget, but it seems unlikely that anything involving additional government spending will be feasible given South Africa’s ongoing trouble with its credit rating. Of the three major credit ratings agencies, two have degraded South Africa to “junk” or sub-investment status and the remaining agency has called for a country review for another probable downgrade. S&P cited instability in public finances as a factor in the agency’s decision to downgrade South Africa’s investment status in November. Simply discussing the possibility of free higher education in addition to NHI and other major government undertakings caused the global financial markets to look sceptically at investing in South Africa. An unplanned announcement of free higher education for 90% of South Africa’s students does not convey a sense of stability and fiscal responsibility to the global debt market. So, if the plan is to borrow money to finance free higher education, that door seems to be quickly closing.
But for pure argument’s sake, let us assume that funding will materialise. It seems odd that the government would provide grants to tertiary school students while families of primary and secondary school students are still expected to pay fees ranging from R5 000 to R30 000 per year at public schools. There are a significant number of public schools without subsidies large enough to cover utility bills, repairs and regular maintenance for the school building, other facilities and equipment, and sorely needed educational supplies. A high-fee-paying government school in Johannesburg reported having to pay everything from the water bill to more than half of its teachers’ salaries with students’ fees.
If the goal is to improve education in South Africa, it is much more practical for the government to focus on building a solid foundation for students by strengthening the education they receive at public primary and secondary schools. Unfortunately, these schools are often unkempt, largely unaccountable for educational outcomes, and poorly managed. Independent Media reported in March that the Eastern Cape Department of Education failed to deliver textbooks to over 40% of schools in the province. Rural schools are too often in terrible condition, with overcrowded classrooms and a lack of basic learning supplies. Funding South Africa’s university students is not likely to produce the positive impact on education that many people assume. Unless learning outcomes are improved in primary and secondary schools, many students will not be ready to perform academically at the collegiate level.
In the sense that giving a person free registration for a triathlon does not mean that they will be able to compete and finish, providing free higher education means nothing for students who are not equipped to succeed there. The Economist reported that 27% of South African students who have attended school for six years cannot read. This is considerably higher than Tanzania’s 4% of students who cannot read after six years and Zimbabwe’s figure of 19%. South Africa’s students perform worse in mathematics: approximately 50% of students cannot perform simple division after five years of schooling. Further research conducted by Hendrik van Broekhuizen, Servaas van der Berg, and Heleen Hofmeyr at the University of Stellenbosch found that only 37% of students in South Africa who start school go on to pass the matriculation exam.
South Africa has bigger problems in its educational system than high university fees. Might we start with the more practical solutions at our disposal?
Jessica Canada Wellman has an MA in Applied Economics and is a U.S. Student Fulbright Scholar at the Free Market Foundation