This article was written as a response to a The Daily Vox article.

Dear TO Molefe,

I would like to offer some comments and criticisms which I hope you will consider. I am going to start with two smaller areas of specific concern in your article, and then later raise the key point I would like to make in respect of the debate around free tertiary education.

Your article does not seem to address the practicalities of implementing increased taxation on the wealthy; something which is very complicated and can easily result in a reduction in tax revenues if not properly analysed or timed. I would be quite sceptical of funding free education from increased taxation, especially given the precarious economic position this country finds itself in presently. I think if we were to rank the sources of funding for such a project in order of their benefit to cost ratio, this would be very close to last on the list. Furthermore, you acknowledge the criticism that having free education for all foregoes a large source of funding from the wealthy, which does not require additional burden on the state, but do not seem to deal with that and instead move on to other ideas. I am not saying you have not thought about that, but I would be interested in hearing why this does not seem to be an attractive option for you. Or, perhaps it is?

I certainly agree that if all poor individuals were expected to pay now and (maybe) derive the benefits later, this would drive the inequality gap further apart. However, this is an oversimplification of the current system. Presently NSFAS and other student funding schemes (which are perhaps not sufficient, but exist nonetheless) fund more than 50% of students at poorer state universities e.g. UL and between 15-30% at wealthier universities e.g. UCT, UFS, UWC etc. The point I am making is that NSFAS is a loan system where students will obtain education now and then pay this back later when they derive benefit from it, similar to your proposition on a progressive income tax. I thought this was not acknowledged when you mentioned the “current system.” The loan scheme also helps to ensure that individuals who derive direct benefit from their higher education also directly pay – i.e. pay for the private benefit. Wealthy families are, for the most part, prepared to pay now and realise the benefit later as the sacrifices, in relative terms to their incomes, are less. The cash flow burden is not as heavily carried by the wealthy compared to the poor. This is arguably fair, especially when it allows for more poor students to obtain state funding.

This concept of ‘free’ education is also misleading. When the state provides something, it is not made possible through the benevolence and generosity of the Members of Parliament who approve policy, but through the tax revenues derived from working people and companies. The pot does not grow larger simply because the ladle has more bowls to fill. In absence of growth, the portions get smaller. The point being made here is that ‘free for some’, is ‘costly for others’, and at the end of the day there will be opportunity costs. I will touch on this later.

The above were some smaller points which I hope you will find constructive. I would like to now move on to my key criticism of the ‘free tertiary education for all’ demand:

I am not entirely sure what you mean when you say “free education”. Do you refer to what the students are calling for – free tertiary education? Or, do you mean to refer to all education, from basic to tertiary? I am going to make the assumption that you mean tertiary, as this is the call from students and is most likely the idea which informed your writing.

I am reluctant to support a call for free tertiary education before we have created an education system or foundation which allows for more equitable access to higher education. From research conducted on the 2008 matric class, which was released earlier this year, it is clear that the crisis in our education system stems not at the higher education level, but at the basic and secondary level. Students who were able to access quintile 5 schools, because they could afford the fees, were nearly 4 times more likely to access any kind of undergraduate programme than the poorest 3 quintiles. The fees in the quintile 5 state schools are typically around R30 000 a year, and are heavily subsidised by old pupils’ associations and other private income. The difference in the quality of education between a quintile 1 and a quintile 5 school is staggering. If we were to keep this gap in place and make tertiary education free, who would really benefit? The students who can afford to pay the fees for a quality secondary education (who are in most cases already in the high income brackets) and have a 45% chance of accessing an undergraduate degree on average? Or those with a mere 5-14% chance of accessing it?

What is encouraging is that those who achieve a bachelor’s pass have at a minimum a 63% (q1) and at best a 70% chance (q5) of accessing higher education. Which means if we were able to increase the level of bachelor’s passes in our poorer schools, through say a drastically improved basic and secondary education (funding) system– we could well achieve more equitable access to higher education and reduce poverty. Certainly more so than we would if we simply build the roof on our cracking foundations. I will not continue to go through the research, as it is adequately done in the reference. The point being is that realising free tertiary education before we have even managed to sort out our foundation education would most likely have a negative impact on the inequality this demand seeks to remedy, and even limit the ability of the state to pursue a better basic education programme.

I also question the mention of a right to higher education. This is not a fundamental right like dignity and access to emergency medical services. When I say this, please do not confuse having the right to have, and having the right to access. The two are very different, for instance, the right to have is not contingent on being suitably qualified – the right to access is. In the case of a university education you have the right to apply and have your application evaluated fairly. Should you be found suitably qualified then you should be admitted and if not, you should not be. These qualifications themselves, as you mention, are important, and universities attempt to make adjustments for those who obtained their results in less fortunate circumstances for this reason. So it is thus of great importance that we improve the means through which people, should they wish to obtain a degree, can qualify themselves so that they may realise their right to access to higher education. Making tertiary education free for a select group of already privileged people who have unequal access to it, does not promote that fundamental right. If anything, it prevents its realisation.

I have extracted the section of the Bill of Rights from which you make the claim of a fundamental right:

Everyone has the right ­-

1. to a basic education, including adult basic education; and

2. to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.

You will see that basic education is a right to have, which, if we were to misapply state resources, would not be able to be made real for many. Further education is not a state responsibility to provide for everyone. It is said that is must be made accessible and available, but not given. Which is the point I made earlier about the difference between the right to have and the right to have access to.

Perhaps, eventually, when and if, South Africa becomes a nation where we have a tax base large enough and a secondary education system which provides quality schooling and access to higher education, we can undertake a project to have free tertiary education for all, like Norway. However, we are not yet there, and a far more noble pursuit, which was called for in 2015, is that universities should receive more state funding so that more poor and middle class students can afford to attend. We have already made progress on this and it is certainly something that we can continue to work on. But funding everyone for free is not a valid call at the moment, and something which cannot be realised until we have rectified the means to access higher education.

I hope you find my comments and critique valuable. It is important that we all engage our mind about the issues at the moment and I hope this contributed to our collective learning.

Kind regards

Blake Player

Bio: Blake is a 4th year Business Science student at UCT, majoring in Finance with Accounting. Advocate of good ideas, not ideologies. Interested in blockchain, economics, craft beer and passionate about humans doing good things exceptionally well

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