Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

President Jacob Zuma’s unilateral declaration of "free university education" for poor students, late last year, had absolutely nothing to do with a genuine desire to remove the real obstacles to tertiary education for this group. Many saw it immediately for what it was: a lamentable attempt at swaying the ANC leadership election towards Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, far too late.

Of course, Zuma’s latest act of careless political manoeuvring shouldn’t have been a huge surprise. Only this time, it’s a gesture that will burden the fiscus with hefty unbudgeted costs, while playing havoc with the already-overburdened universities.

As it is, the universities are still trying to cope with yet another of Zuma’s silly populist moves; his 2015 diktat that universities should not raise fees for the 2016 academic year. Then, as now, his announcement was made before government made available any resources to the universities to cover the shortfall. At the time, Zuma’s government was under intense pressure from rampaging university students who demanded that #FeesMustFall. Fearing an Arab Spring-style uprising, Zuma’s move was an intensely personal act of self-protection — a hallmark of his tenure.

This time, desperate to ensure victory for Dlamini-Zuma, he defied both the ANC and national treasury, which had warned against undermining the budgeting process through promising funding in this reckless manner.

After all, it was only weeks after the release of the Heher report, which had made it abundantly clear that government just couldn’t afford to fund free tertiary education. Instead, it proposed a raft of creative ideas — partnering with commercial banks to provide loans to students, for example.

Obviously, that reality didn’t suit Zuma. So he heedlessly promised free education for students from families earning less than R350,000/year.

Of course, no provision has been made for this extra spending. Even before this, there was a R50bn spending deficit, revealed by finance minister Malusi Gigaba in his midterm expenditure framework in October, which hasn’t been resolved. Free education, at this point, adds an estimated R12bn-R15bn to the funding hole at the very time when government is at its weakest.

Of course, no progressive citizen would dispute that accessible education is necessary. Education is, after all, not just an equaliser in a terminally lop-sided economy, it’s also the route to creating skills for an expertise-starved nation. But the resources to deliver free education cannot just be wished into existence, as Zuma seems to think.

As a country, we’re already living beyond our means. We’re paying more than R160bn/year to service debt — money now lining the pockets of foreign banks, rather than being spent on services.

So where will the money come from? Cutting public servants’ salaries, or laying them off? Slashing other departments’ budgets? Hiking Vat? All those options have consequences that Zuma didn’t consider.

What government needs is a proper budgeting plan to phase in accessible education. It needs a sustainable policy, even if it imposes a graduate tax to ensure that beneficiaries pay back the fiscus to fund those coming after them.

But as it stands today the plan is not only unaffordable, it also turns the very real plight of millions of poor students into a political football.

Inevitably, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) launched into the mess by encouraging students to walk into universities to demand free education — without regard for the capacity of universities to deal with the influx. Like Zuma, the EFF cares about the students only as long as they provide the party with a political battering ram.