Allow me to put this on record: vice-chancellors of SA universities were not consulted ahead of President Jacob Zuma’s declaration of free education for those with a family income of under R350,000/year.

We were aware of the debate because it had been covered in the media, but we were told it had been deferred to the budget deliberations in the new year.

We did have a meeting with higher education minister Hlengiwe Mkhize just prior to the announcement, but the fee-free proposal was never discussed. What we explored was the possibility of a repeat of the previous year’s concessions, namely that the state would pay the fee increase for those with a family income of less than R600,000.

There has been rhetorical judgment by some student leaders, politicians and activists that the vice-chancellors are opposed to the fee-free proposal.

Universities and their stakeholders are being treated as cannon fodder in a battle between political parties

Let me clarify. The vice-chancellors do not hold a homogeneous position on this. Some do not believe in free higher education, given the levels of inequality in our society and the fact that SA has the world’s highest private gains from university education.

Others, myself included, believe the inequality challenges could be catered for through an alternative tax regime, and so are more supportive of a free higher education system because of the inclusive development effects it could have for society.

Whatever the differences among us, we are all of the view that this policy reform must be effected in a measured, sustainable manner. We are aware of the experiences of universities in other parts of Africa where politicians declared free education, but did not make resources available. Universities collapsed, irreparably damaging the economic prospects and social stability of these societies.

My view is that we should effect the reform in a staggered manner, first enabling loans, and then slowly shifting in favour of grants as the economy improves and the tax base expands. This would allow for sustainable financing of free higher education.

Once it was made clear that the fee-free plan would be implemented in 2018, we took the view that the best approach would be to assume that government would fund this reform and that we needed to make practical plans on how to effect it. Given that application deadlines had passed, and that some universities were already heavily oversubscribed, we decided with the ministry to direct new applications to the central applications clearing house.

Some may ask, why not re-open applications? The answer is simple: if you are already oversubscribed, are you not creating administrative chaos by allowing walk-in applications?

Putting lives in danger

In this context, the call by some political leaders and activists for applicants to walk into the universities of their choice is irresponsible. It is populist and risks lives by enabling conditions for stampedes — but it also is ignorant of how universities work: enrolment plans are negotiated with the department years in advance. Numbers in academic disciplines are limited by infrastructure and human resources, and over-enrolment compromises teaching.

What was afoot here was political spectacle: in an effort to expose Zuma’s populism, the EFF was prepared to behave in the same populist manner and create a crisis at SA universities. The universities and their stakeholders are being treated as cannon fodder in a battle between political parties.

As long as we allow universities to be used as political footballs, so will we continue the instability in these institutions and allow them to be vulnerable to a collapse in quality and standards.

If this were to happen, the poor and middle classes would pay the cost of this populism. Ironically, this generation would have delivered free education, but would also have contributed to the collapse of the last set of quality universities in Africa. The net effect would be to ensure that SA remains a compromised and therefore exclusionary democracy.

• Habib is vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand


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