South Africa: Free education proposals

Tinkering or transformation?

Higher education minister Blade Nzimande has announced proposals to extend full bursarier for university study to working class and poor youth, which are yet to be debated, approved and implemented. Such moves to ease access to education, together with the incorporation of 60% of schools in the no-fee-scheme, form part of the government’s "carrot"-response to the crisis in education. On the other hand, government is wielding a "stick" of authoritarianism – attributing the huge, class-based problems to mere lack of discipline.

At the start of the second term, the Durban University of Technology had been paralysed by student mass action over issues of residences, facilities, transport and corruption since the beginning of the year. Like the DUT, the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) Soshanguve campus was closed down for a period in an attempt to contain a student strike. TUT students were protesting for access to financial aid, decent residences and transport. Mangosuthu Technikon students also protested against fee increases and lack of facilities. When Sasco in March staged protests at the University of Johannesburg, the University of Zululand and the University of KwaZulu-Natal demanding free education, they were capitalising on students’ concerns over financial exclusions, financial aid etc. Regardless of the opportunism that often motivates the leadership of such protests, they are partly an expression of genuine problems that over the past few years have become a regular part of the academic year. In schools, meanwhile, the crisis in the education system and in working class communities create a tense situation in which localised conflicts and protests are sparked nearly on daily basis, the latest one receiving media attention being the torching of mobile classrooms by learners at Naphakhade school in Malmesbury, Western Cape, in protest against the education department’s failure to respond to their complaints of overcrowding.

Eruptions like these, indicating the critical state of an education system close to meltdown, helped push the ANC’s December 2007 Polokwane congress to resolve to “progressively introduce free education for the poor until undergraduate level”. The Zuma faction identified education as one of its five key priorities critical to resolving the country’s broader social and economic problems. As a demonstration of its seriousness, the education department was disestablished and replaced with two new departments, basic and higher education respectively, to allow for a tighter focus on specific areas of the general education crisis. The appointment of SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande as Higher Education and Training minister was partly calculated to symbolise the government’s determination to tackle the troubling question of inequality of access.

In mid-March 2010 Nzimande announced he will propose “full state subsidisation of students from poor and working class backgrounds” according to the recommendations of the ministerial review committee he had tasked to conduct a thorough examination of the crisis in education funding. The committee’s report pointed out what protesting students have been saying for years: “that NSFAS funding falls far short of demand (with) significant gaps between the NSFAS award and the full cost of study for many students” (Business Day, 10/03/17). Nzimande’s “free education” is to be “introduced progressively”; realised step by step at a pace determined by the “budgetary constraints” of the government.

NSFAS mess

The report also detailed the complete mess that makes up the NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme). The scheme is currently able to provide for less than half of all qualifying students. Of the almost 3 million young people aged 18-24 who are neither studying nor employed, 98000 have university entry matric passes. Of NSFAS recipients who are no longer studying, only 28% have graduated; the remaining 72% pushed out before finishing due to lack of academic support and the fact that for most students the NSFAS award is simply too small.

R50 million of the NFSAS budget is routinely left unspent every year, because of the overly complicated and inefficient loan application system. How much financial aid students get varies wildly as institutions and their respective financial aid offices operate according to practices based on their own interpretation of the rules. Knowing that the state funding it receives is not enough to provide for all eligible prospective students, the NSFAS has resorted to try and keep the fund viable through a ruthless debt collection approach, consciously contradicting the National Credit Act by continuing to pursue “expired” debts, ignoring rules limiting how much interest can be charged on loans, forcing employers to deduct repayments from former students’ salaries, and blacklisting those who fail to pay. Half of these 10 000 former students have been blacklisted by the scheme for debts that can no longer be claimed legally. In addition to the R10 billion on the NSFAS loan books (a substantial part of which is probably impossible to recover, according to the Review), higher education institutions are owed another R2,7 billion by students.

The Review recommends changes which appear aimed at a complete overhaul, even a shut-down of NSFAS in its present form. The recommendations include a name change; new head office; new organisational structure; new policies; amendments of the NSFAS Act; responsibility for loan recovery is to be shifted to SARS; and there is to be a new central applications process.

Free for the poor?

The remodeled NSFAS should, according to the Review, administer financial aid in new ways: qualifying students from the poorest backgrounds would get a subsidy of R43 000 a year (the average “full cost of study” at higher education institutions). The recommendations include extending assistance to the “missing middle” students – those not deemed poor enough to qualify for the NSFAS loan/bursary (family income under R122 000 per year), yet unable to afford tuition fees and other costs of studying. It proposes new loan schemes directed specifically at the children of public sector employees earning under R300 000 a year, on the one hand, and at other “lower middle-income” families on the other. Nzimande announced that the Review Committee will continue investigating other higher education issues, while public consultation on the proposals is undertaken. A finished proposal would be made to the government in August 2010.

An expanded definition of the financially needy and bursaries for the full cost of study for such students; allocation of funds to HEIs according to the number of poor and working class students rather than their racial composition; making loans accessible to those currently “stuck in the middle”; tightening up and modernising the administration and the recovery of loans – these are the main positive traits of the proposals, which, however, still have to be debated, approved, funded and implemented.

The attempts to open up access to higher education follow on the introduction of “no-fee-schools” beginning in 2006. 60% of state schools situated in poor areas are now declared as free of charge. Just like any easing of the pressure on working class youths and their families will be welcome in higher education, the concessions in basic education are a step forward.

Why we need free education for all

Partial abolishing of fees, however, still leaves inequality in the education system almost undented. The education system reflects and reproduces the massive class rift in SA society – the most unequal on Earth. The division within education may even be exacerbated by reserving certain schools for “the poor” while the better-off are free to top-up the state funding at schools in wealthy communities with ever-increasing fees which pay for extra staff and equipment, and yet others go for exclusive private schools. This diversion of resources amounts to a robbery of the schools and communities that need the most support – taking from the poor and giving to the rich. What is needed is a massive upgrading of a single united fully state-funded education system to which all learners, educators and parents would have to commit and contribute according to ability.

Genuinely free education would mean that the state would have to provide the funding currently coming from students. Those opposed to free education, such as Higher Education SA (HESA – the vice-chancellors’ association), argue that free education for all would amount to “subsidising the rich” and as such be unaffordable and unfair. Abolishing higher education tuition fees would cost R7,7 billion at the present enrolment levels, according to Dr Saleem Badat, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University (The Star, 10/03/23). Abolishing residence fees would cost another R1,3 billion. The Review Committee estimates the cost of their proposal of full bursaries for “the poor” at R5,2 billion at current participation levels.

Free education for all would also eliminate the need for the inevitably messy, multiple and often contradictory, bureaucracies that accompany any means-tested scheme such as the NSFAS, campus-based or private loan and bursary schemes, or school fee exemptions. A new system without fees altogether would also remove the stigma attached to the NSFAS loan as a label of poverty and the huge gap in status and quality between different Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and schools. What is required is a fundamental transformation of the entire education system from pre-school through to university.

Tinkering or transformation?

The ANC government is not prepared to take such bold measures. This is the Achilles’ Heel of Nzimande’s free education proposals. Education is in fact not intended to be free. Nzimande is attempting to win the support of working class students by relying on arguments such as those of HESA that the government’s obligations are merely to level the playing fields so that there is equality of access for the deserving poor. Under the pretext of ensuring that the rich pay their way, Nzimande is in fact leaving the fundamental class-based framework of the system intact, while polishing the surface.

But the rich could pay for free education through taxes instead of fees. In addition, sustaining free education would require using the wealth that is currently locked up in the private safes and accounts of the capitalists – taking over the major corporations, banks, mines etc into public ownership, with the working class majority democratically managing both operations and the use of the wealth created according to the needs of society.

Carrot and stick

While Nzimande’s free education proposals are dangled as a carrot he hopes will be able to restore the youth’s confidence in higher education and the future in general; a stick is also wielded at basic education by the government and the political establishment in general. This increasingly authoritarian approach seeks to blame the poor and the working class for their own plight, discourage dependence on the state, emphasise the need for greater discipline and pointing the finger at teacher union Sadtu in particular for the crisis in schools. It has been expressed in calls to go back to “rote-learning”, sweeping condemnation of the OBE-curriculum, a narrow and competitive perspective on performance (e.g. listing the “best” and “worst” schools), calls to ban political activity and Learners Representative Councils in schools. It is also reflected on the ground in schools: learners being prevented from proceeding to higher grades (where it is assumed they will fail) to make the school’s pass rate look better; being steered away from “difficult” subjects, depriving children of classes in arts, culture and sports in the interest of market-viable “basics”.

Witch-hunt against teachers

A particularly worrying aspect of this is the virtual witch hunt on teachers, particularly the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union, and the right to strike. This followed almost immediately on the announcement of the disastrous 2009 Matric results; a cheap but dangerous attempt to find scapegoats. Teachers make remarkable efforts despite a confusing curriculum, dire lack of resources, low pay and a violent and extremely stressful working environment where they are also compelled to try and fill in as social workers, counselors and administrators. While the proposal to declare education an “essential service” (i.e. a no-strike-sector) came from the Democratic Alliance (DA), there clearly is sympathy for this among sections of the ruling class and the ANC, following on last year’s attempts to ban unions in the army. This would be a serious infringement of the hard-won democratic rights of all workers in SA and a major step backward in the struggle for an education system geared towards self-liberation instead of conditioning us into new oppressors and oppressed. The government’s approach is influenced by a reaction against these very ideals which were championed by the emerging teachers’ unions in particular.

Attacking symptoms, fuelling the causes

Sharpened class contradictions, largely unresolved racial tensions, rife gender oppression, a roll-back of class consciousness in the wake of betrayal of those previously regarded as fighting for working class liberation, widespread feelings of hopelessness about the future, escapism into drug abuse or other self destructive behaviour – all these features of the brutal social system are reflected in brutal human relations, including among learners and staff. The resulting partial break-down of social relations is expressed in absenteeism among learners and teachers, drugs, violence, bullying and sexual abuse at school, and a common generally loveless approach to poor learners.

Overcoming this situation and getting “teachers in class, teaching” and “learners, learning” will take much more than top-down discipline. The lack of resources and huge inequalities contribute directly to problems of “discipline” as well as to the poor quality of education in general. The 2009 matric results, the worst since the ANC came to power, highlighted the full extent of the crisis: the official failure rate, 39.4%, was just the tip of an iceberg of shattered dreams. Of the 1 550 790 learners who started grade 1 in 1998, only 551 940 made it through to last year’s matric exam. The real failure rate, in other words, is 78% (Sunday Independent 2010/01/10). Fifteen year into democracy, only 7% of schools in SA have a functional library as the Equal Education campaign points out. The lack of basic infrastructure like water, sanitation, electricity as well as laboratories, decent playing fields and properly trained teachers are all problems that were inherited from apartheid. As Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga conceded, the children and youth who are confined to this disaster zone are almost exclusively black, as class divisions continue to closely trace racial lines. It is clear that the Zuma government has reconciled itself to the idea of eternal class divisions (“the poor will always be with us” as former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said) and a class-separated education system as part and parcel of capitalism. The problems in schools are merely symptoms caused by the unequal distribution of resources in the education system and in society at large.

The focus on higher education suggests the government accepts that the capitalist system is inherently hostile against the poor and that higher education reform is designed to increase the chances of those who manage against the odds to make it to tertiary education, to complete their studies. In the context of the economic crisis, the end of which is not in sight despite the optimistic perspectives every other economic analyst and government is putting forward, means that the resources to finance a complete overhaul of the education system – a massive provision of proper infrastructure for schools, including solid buildings, electricity, and sanitation, improved education and training for teachers – do not form part of the programme. In the present economic climate, even those fortunate enough to benefit from tertiary education reform, will only improve the educational level of the unemployed.

Mass based campaigns are needed to pressure the government to implement the free education proposals, and to build a movement that can go further than that and fight for an education system in which, amongst others, learners are not hungry or exhausted in class after walking long distances, feel confident and secure at school and at home, are given chances to develop all their diverse talents; believe their education is going to make a change in their lives, see a way forward after primary and secondary school; and teachers have the time and resources, energy and motivation to give every child individual attention, are remunerated according to the enormous value they add to society. Such an education can only be created in the context of a struggle to break the dictatorship of the market and to create a socialist society.

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