Change the world



This opinion piece appeared in the Herald of 19 October 2016.

Free higher education

I AM amazed at the inability of the government to accept responsibility or accountability for what has been going on for the past few weeks.

I myself am a student who was financially excluded in the past and unable to complete my final year of studies. However, my views differ from those who support the free education movement.

My question is: would I sacrifice the quality of education just for it to be free? NO.

I have been monitoring the #FeesMustFall movement via social media and news feeds, as well as Facebook comments where it’s been said “the Freedom Charter promised us free education and it’s our constitutional right”.

The Freedom Charter states that “the doors of learning and culture shall be opened”:

  • “The government shall discover, develop and encourage national talent for the enhancement of our cultural life;
  • “All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands;
  • “The aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace;
  • “Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children;
  • “Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit;
  • “Adult illiteracy shall be ended by mass state education plan;
  • “Teachers shall have all the rights of other citizens;
  • “The colour bar in cultural life, in sport and in education shall be abolished.”

The Freedom Charter never promised free tertiary education, but it does state that “education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children”, meaning it’s a primary right to get a free basic education. At the age of 18, according to the law, we are no longer considered to be children, but we are young adults. Therefore we must take responsibility for our actions and be held accountable in the eyes of the law – thus a further education becomes a choice and a secondary right.

However, the government is to be blamed for the crisis in our education system because universities never promised free education, nor did the Freedom Charter.

The question that needs to addressed, however, is if free is equal to quality, as some lecturers at the University of Johannesburg already stated that they would not settle for less and that they are already seeking employment opportunities abroad where there is a high demand for their skillsets. The problem with that is that experience can’t be replaced. Even if someone else ends up doing the same job, they might not be as good.

The other question is: how do you retain the quality if it’s free?

Among the online comments, there are those who refer to other countries offering free education, but the fact of the matter is those countries spend more on tertiary education than South Africa does and not everyone decides to further their education after completing school or demand something for nothing.

Demanding something for nothing is not the correct approach and no one has offered any real solutions besides increasing tax. If taxes were to be increased, not only would the poor suffer, but it could and ultimately would lead to an increase in the unemployment rate and in the price of basic needs and services.

Free education is not free if someone has to pay for it and, in this case, the burden would fall on the taxpayers.

It’s easy to demand something from someone without thinking about the consequences, but in order for things to work some compromises would have to be made.

I personally feel that the youth are being underestimated in their abilities to do great things, but the way they are going about it is wrong. I believe those who have gained entry to a university should be afforded the opportunity to show that they have the ability to cope with the workload and be given the opportunity to get their qualifications to better their lives, but in order for that to happen the government needs to play its role and increase the amount of money spent on tertiary education.

“Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit” – if the government lives up to its promise regarding education, those who can’t afford to pay should be subsidised, as it states in the constitution.

The essence of the movement refers to the inclusion of all students who have been accepted but are not able to pay for studies, which includes tuition and book allowances. To maintain the quality of education, the government would have to provide all study costs for academically deserving students, and a book allowance to cover the cost of books and stationery (digital material not included, eg. laptops, cell phones or tablet computers).

That would mean that education would be paid for and the student would not have to pay it back upon completion of studies, but they would be held responsible for other costs such as accommodation and food (the cost of accommodation and food would have to be paid for by the student after completion of studies to help accommodate other students in the same category – you can’t expect someone else to pay for your lifestyle).

There needs to be some sort of responsibility from students to help pave their own way through life and not depend on others. Students living at home and given a transport allowance would have to pay that money back.

As for the missing middle, help would be extended with the fee increment and those who have the ability to do so would have to pay. In so doing, the quality would remain as is and classes may resume.

Dorian Webster 

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057