Opinion: Free University Education In South Africa Would Expand Inequality

Opinion: Free University Education In South Africa Would Expand Inequality

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The University of California is providing potential students with some relief during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic by suspending test requirements. In this Nov. 13, 2017 photo, Devante Kincade, quarterback for the Grambling's NCAA college football game college football team, listens during a criminal justice class. Playing football at an HBCU is not just about entertaining halftime shows the schools are known for, it's about community, he says. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Student activism played a central role in the fight against apartheid, and now South African police under the ruling ANC government are using tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades against students protesting for free education.

Student demonstrators performed the “toyi-toyi” — a protest dance used during the fight against oppressive white rule.

A student and staff member were injured and two students were arrested in the violence Tuesday at the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, Al Jazeera reported. Two students were also arrested at the University of Cape Town, where protesters tried to block entrances and disrupt lectures.

The cost of university education is prohibitive for many black students, highlighting frustration with inequality in Africa’s most industrialized country more than 20 years after apartheid ended, according to The Guardian.

Protesters say they want free university education to help close the inequality gap, which is still largely split between blacks and whites.

Historically, the governing African National Congress (ANC) won party votes by promising affordable — some argue, free — education, housing, and healthcare, but didn’t deliver.

Under the hashtag #FeesMustFall, a growing movement in South Africa is supported by university students, celebrities and some major organizations.

But in reality, fees cannot fall, said Simphiwe Dhlamini in an opinion piece in News24. South Africa had 938,201 registered university students in 2013. They paid an estimated average annual cost per student of around 27,000 rand — ($1,951), Dhlamini reported.

By comparison, the average cost in the U.S. for tuition and fees in the 2015–2016 school year was $9,410 for in-state residents at public colleges, according to the College Board, EducationData.org reported.

“Countries that offer free higher education such as Sweden and Germany are highly industrialized and far (more) developed states than South Africa,” Dhlamini said. “(They) heavily tax their citizens … around 40-to-45 percent income tax.”

There is no such thing as “free higher education,” said Nico Cloete, a professor at the University of the Western Cape in a guest column in The Conversation:

There is broad agreement among economists of higher education funding that government subsidies are regressive, meaning that subsidies favor the rich. It is also worth noting that the South African constitution indexes affordable, and not free, education.

According to British economist Nicholas Barr public universities in OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries often argue that low or no tuition fees provide greater equality of educational opportunity. But the reality, he points out, is the overwhelming subsidy in public universities accrues to students from middle and high-income families.

In South Africa free higher education will widen, not reduce, inequality. This is because the low participation rate (currently at 20 percent), combined with free tuition, would immediately restrict the expansion of places.

In addition the main problem for the poor in South Africa is not that they cannot afford higher education. The issue is that less than 5 percent of them qualify for entry into universities. The contrast with the 5 percent whose parents earn over 600,000 rand ($43,375) could not be more marked. The percentage who qualify to enter university in this bracket is over 70 percent.

It will be the children of the new political and business elite who have the significant social, cultural and economic capital who will succeed in school and gain access to tertiary education. Like the rest of Africa, South Africa has limited (even zero) growth and one of the most unequal and inefficient school systems on the continent. Installing a free university system on top of that will only serve to solidify and expand inequality.

If South Africa actually succeeds in making higher education free, “we would be the first and only African country and … the only third-world country alongside Brazil and Cuba to pull this off,” Dlamini said.