Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib. Picture: SUPPLIED
Wits University vice-chancellor Adam Habib. Picture: SUPPLIED

Is free higher education legitimate and affordable in SA? And, if so, which financial model should enable its implementation? These distinct questions are often conflated; as a result, neither is answered satisfactorily. Yet they lie at the very heart of SA’s university crisis.

The legitimacy of the demand for free higher education is, of course, contested. If the question were posed to the protesting students, their leadership, and even many of those in solidarity with the movement, the answer would be a categorical yes. They would hold, at least implicitly, that universities and higher education institutions more generally should be instruments for addressing inequality. But this is only possible if these institutions enable access for students from marginalised communities, and provide support to and graduate such students, thereby facilitating class mobility.

If, however, these institutions only enroll the children of the rich and the upper middle classes because of their high fees, they effectively serve to reinforce or even increase the very inequalities that prevail in, or were inherited by, the society. The protesting students and their leaders and supporters would thus argue that universities in particular and the post-secondary education system more generally must be deliberately refashioned with free education as its core principle, so that these institutions generate the inclusive developmental benefits necessary to transform SA society.

There are many stakeholders in society who would sympathise with this view, even if they have questions about its affordability. But there are also discordant voices that grapple with how best to address the challenges of higher education. One opposing view is that free higher education for all is morally unacceptable in a highly unequal society such as SA because it subsidises higher education for the rich and lets them off the hook from paying higher fees, which could have been used to cross-subsidise poor students.

Again, while I am sympathetic to their concern from a managerial point of view, I do not believe that this thesis is intellectually sound because it ignores the fact that there is no such thing as free education. Someone always has to pay; if we were to declare free education in SA, the rich would simply be paying through another mechanism, namely taxes. If one recognises this, then there is no legitimacy to the immorality argument.

Assuming for a moment that there is legitimacy to the demand for free education, is it feasible or affordable? Again, if you were to put this question to the student protesters or their supporters, there would a resounding yes.

Affordability

The affordability of free higher education was most coherently summarised in an article by Salim Vally and his co-authors in the online journal The Conversation, and in their submission to the presidential commission on free education. Essentially, they argued that the costs of free higher education should be underwritten by a tax on the superrich, what they interpret as the top 10% of income earners in society.

But their arguments in this public intervention and in a subsequent, more academic, contribution in The New South African Review do not persuasively demonstrate the proposal’s political or economic feasibility. There is no detailed costing of the proposal, nor are there detailed recommendations on the level of tax required to generate the resources for financing the reform.

Yet there are as many questions to be asked of the ANC and government’s view on free higher education. The governing party has never formally committed to comprehensive free higher education, instead preferring to qualify the right, on the grounds of affordability, with the phrase “for the poor and working class”. A number of its senior leaders have questioned the moral legitimacy of the government investing so many more resources in a university system comprising just more than 1-million students, when more than three to four times that number are either outside the system and/or unemployed.

Is there legitimacy to the ANC’s position that free higher education for all is not immediately feasible in SA? Of course, it depends on what one means by free higher education. Should it simply involve tuition, as in Germany and Mexico, or should it take a comprehensive form and cover accommodation and subsistence as well, as in Scandinavia?

Ironically, here there is substantive agreement among all role players. Everyone recognises that free tuition would not be sufficient as there are too many students without the financial means to cover the costs of accommodation and subsistence. The net result would be wasted resources, as these students would be unable to progress through the system in any case.

Comprehensive, free higher education would come at an astronomical cost. Officials from the department of higher education & training and the Treasury estimate that Jacob Zuma’s proclamation of comprehensive, free higher education for all students in universities and TVET (technical and vocational education and training) colleges with a family income of less than R350,000 per annum would cover 40% of the system and, once fully implemented, would cost an additional R57bn per annum, or 4.3% of government expenditure.

Extrapolating from this for the whole system, one can assume that fully comprehensive, free higher education for all students would be in the region of an extra R143bn per annum. And this is a conservative figure since it is now known that the original estimate of R57bn was hopelessly inadequate and the true cost may be higher than R90bn. SA simply does not have sufficient resources in state coffers to implement comprehensive, free higher education for both universities and TVET colleges.

But the protesters’ counterargument cannot be ignored. The vast majority of students who gain access to universities are from the richest 10% of the population, although it is worth noting that, because of SA’s skewed distribution of income, this represents largely the middle class.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of the poor are concentrated in historically black universities. The net effect of this demographic configuration in higher education is that we are reinforcing the very inequalities that were inherited by the post-apartheid state. Any agenda for addressing inequality in SA must think through how to refinance universities so that they are capable of educating the children of marginalised communities and thereby enabling class mobility.

This is especially true of a society like SA, where university education has the highest return for individuals in comparison to any other part of the world. Given this need to use universities to address the challenge of inequality and the problem of affordability, we have to explore the probability of establishing a multiyear, perhaps even multidecade, programme that gradually shifts us to enabling access for poor and “missing middle” students to higher education and ensuring that the costs of doing this are no longer a barrier.

• This is a shortened extract from Rebels and Rage, which reflects on the #FeesMustFall protests. Habib is the vice-chancellor of Wits University.