One of the more interesting policy debacles in higher education this year has been the fracas over tuition fees in South Africa, which has led to what some are calling the biggest set of anti-government protests since the end of apartheid. Here’s what you need to know:
The protests began when universities announced fee hikes for the coming year. On average, the fee hikes were in the 6% range, which was relatively modest given a persistent inflation rate of just under 5%, and additional cost pressures due to a falling rand (the rand is 14 = 1 USD at the moment, up from 8 = 1 USD three years ago). This kind of increase is not unusual in South Africa, but for a variety of reasons, this year the increases brought students out into the streets in very large numbers.
There were, near as I can tell, three factors at work. The first is generalized discontent with the ANC government (animosity that is by no means restricted to students). Though the party can still win over 50% of the vote in elections, a lot of that support is residual loyalty for its fight against apartheid rather than approval of current policies; and since today’s students were mostly born after Mandela was released from prison, they feel less loyalty to the party than do older South Africans. Economic growth is fading (partly due to falling commodity prices, partly due to government incompetence, particularly on energy and power generation), which means no progress on persistently high unemployment among blacks. And if there is one file where the government has underperformed the most over the past twenty years, it’s education. The problem is worse in K-12 than in universities (though colleges are a right mess), but the repeated failure to sufficiently increase expenditure in higher education is a persistent failure.
The second issue is with respect to student aid. Though the government has massively increased outlays, it has also massively increased loan losses. Up until about seven years ago, the National Student Financial Aid System (NSFAS) had the continent’s best record of loan repayment (about 60%). Then, the government decided – on what many regard as quite spurious grounds – to make it harder for NSFAS to collect the loans, and repayment plummeted to about 20%. This was good news for graduates of course: more money for them; but it effectively raised the price of increasing access. One of the casualties of that was an inability to expand middle-class families’ access to loans, a group who subsequently feel very squeezed.
The third factor was an uptick in student militancy this past March with the #RhodesMustFall campaign. This started at the University of Cape Town where students wanted to remove a statue of the arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes (they succeeded). This morphed into a wider set of protests about the progress universities have made in transforming themselves since 1994, in particular with respect to the progress of black academics.
So with all this kindling, the relatively small sparks of what vice-chancellors thought was a run-of-the-mill tuition increase turned into a major conflagration, which went under the heading #FeesMustFall (a play on the earlier Rhodes campaign). At first the government tried to straight-arm the students, with the Higher Education minster (and Communist party chief) Blade Nzimandize claiming maladroitly that he would start his own #StudentsMustFall campaign. When that didn’t work, the ANC began trying to co-opt the protest, claiming students’ views as their own. Eventually the protests grew so large that President Zuma eventually froze all fees for a year, and compensated institutions to the tune of 80% of the cost of the freeze. But the ANC has also taken steps to give itself unprecedented authority to massively intrude on universities’ autonomy, so that it can more directly control costs and remove inconvenient administrators.
The fee freeze took some of the sting out of the protests, but it also emboldened some protestors who want to see South Africa move to a free fee system. Given that participation rates for whites are between three and four times higher for blacks, this is a curiously regressive idea (and may explain why whites were seemingly so much more prominent in the #feesmustfall protests than in those for #rhodesmustfall). The head of South Africa’s Centre for Higher Education Trust, Nico Cloete, skewered the idea in a University World News column this weekend (read it here; it’s long but very good), saying rightly that in a society as unequal as South Africa, “affordable higher education for all” is a necessary goal, but “free higher education for all” is morally wrong.
Which is dead on, frankly. Fix student aid so the poor get more grant aid and the middle-class get more loan aid, sure. More money for universities to maintain quality? Sure (South Africa has an amazing set of universities for a middle-income country, but that’s at risk over the long-term). But spending more money to make it free for the already highly privileged? South Africa can and should do better than that.