The introduction of a no-fee regime for poor students marks a turning point in the post-apartheid higher education landscape.
Putting aside the political machinations of the suddenness of the announcement, it is morally correct that the state no longer devolves the burden to the poor majority of students – either by encumbering them with major debt upon graduation, or forcing struggling households to have to go to extraordinary lengths to get a child through university.
Even if Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba finds R3-billion for the free-free venture, it could alleviate financial strain for up to 30000 students if they are given a R100000 grant each (this is what they would each need for fees, food and accommodation).
However, we must remind ourselves that we are here in this position because it was the ANC itself that chose a fee-driven university model and became somewhat fiscally addicted to it.
Understandably in the early 1990s, the emerging democratic state was hamstrung by its financial precariousness and needed public institutions that could partially do for themselves to do so.
However, the ever-increasing university fees stopped this from being a sustainable method for this African country.
It should have been obvious that at some point demographics and economics would clash.
Fees have become a class barrier in higher education, a class-driven logic that actually runs through much of our public education system.
In basic education, the economic dualism of historically white model C schools versus historically black schools has become so concretised over time that even the Department of Basic Education gives out a prize for top matric students in “no-fee” schools.
In higher education we see a similar “model-C-isation” of universities because universities are expected to set and increase their own fees as well as raise additional sources of income.
In this system, historically white universities can attract the best entering students as well as the most specialised academics, and offer them the best conditions for learning and research.
No surprises that these “model C” universities are now among the top ranked in the world.
However, the same cannot be said for historically black universities or newly restructured universities which have a majority of economically disenfranched students depending on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
The majority of these universities struggle to generate the kind of additional income either from fees, research or donors to be academically competitive in the long term.
One way they dealt with these pressures was simply to increase student numbers to attract a larger subsidy from the state.
The Council for Higher Education reported in 2016 that “while the growth in student enrolment has been considerable, the growth in the academic staff complement has not kept pace, such that the student to staff ratio, always less than desirable, has worsened over the two decades…
“This growth has not been met with sufficient funding to enable the national goals of higher education to be fully met, and the prospects of a sustainable increase in funding are negligible…
“Institutional managements and staff have to deliver on sometimes competing objectives. The higher education system in South Africa is undoubtedly under pressure, with a number of institutions struggling to keep the higher education project alive.”
In dealing with competing objectives, universities have adopted a corporatist and managerialist approach to running universities which curtail free academic freedom, thus undermining intellectual inquiry.
Effectively, the sector shifted from apartheid logic to corporatist logic – simply from one form of exclusion and authoritarianism to another.
As universities respond with a mixture of shock and adaptation to the fee-free announcement, one gets the feeling there’s a bit of “playing the victim” going on by state officials, as if universities hold the power.
No, fees were a state-sanctioned policy all along and it cannot simply act as if this is the end of its responsibilities in transforming the higher education sector .
We will need responsible leadership both in the state and in the education sector to help us navigate an uncertain path.