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Free Higher Education for the Poor is the Right Thing to do in South Africa.



Following the announcement in December 2017 by President Jacob Zuma, that the state will fund higher education for young South Africans from poor households, there has been an outpouring of opposition from all quarters. Amongst those who oppose such a move are the private sector, some media analyst, higher education institutions, civil society organisations among others. Over the past weeks, I have followed some of the discussions on the subject with disappointment. It is tragic that 24 years after democracy in South Africa, many South Africans still do not recognise that the only way by which a child of a mineworker, the child of a domestic worker, the child of a security guard, a restaurant attendant, a petrol attendant, a pensioner, an unemployed black South African can become a CEO of the JSE, or some large corporation tomorrow is through free quality higher education.

Education cannot continue to be a privilege for poor South Africans, 24 years into democracy. Today, poor students who manage to get to university through some partial debt funding find it hard to go through university, many instead of focusing on studying hard and acquiring diverse skills in sports, arts and other creative opportunities that the universities offer, rather focus on doing part-time jobs to fund part of their studies or to feed themselves or provide accommodation. Studies point to the fact that, poor students who manage to go through the university system do so mostly a pass mark lower than they would have done if they did not struggle to meet most of their basic needs through school. We have even seen in recent history horror stories of poor homeless students, who sleep in lecture rooms. How these stories do not captivate the hearts of many South Africans, who oppose “free” “State funded” quality higher education for the poor is a mystery. I will like to highlight a few points to support the thesis that free quality higher education for the poor is the right thing for South Africa to do.

As unpopular as the call for “free” (state-funded) quality higher education may be, some call it socialist, others call it unaffordable, and others say it is politically driven, it is a necessary “evil” in South Africa now than ever before. Evidence points to the fact that, of the top ten countries ranked in education systems in the world according to the World Economic Forum, over 60 percent of these countries offer free higher education not only to the poor but all its citizens amongst these are countries such as Scotland, Germany, Belgium, Qatar, Barbados, and Estonia. In most cases many of these nations that fund higher education, the government spend between 2 and 5 percent of GDP on education. South Africa spends far below the general global average spend on higher education (less than 1 percent of GDP). About 40 percent of government spending is spent on public employees wage bills, if critics of free higher education for the poor really wanted to make a point about affordability, they could maybe start by advocating for a reduction in government wage bill and not education that can change the life of a black child in South Africa.

It is interesting that while student debt funded education increased from 2.4 billion in 2008 to 15 billion in 2017 through NASFAS funding, critics of free education for the poor did not come out gun blazing against the move to increase debt funding for needy students as they are doing now. Other questions that could be asked in the light of the pronouncement by the president on free education for the poor might include the following:

  • Can free education truly empower a poor black child?
  • Can South Africa afford free education for poor students?
  • What is the legal basis for free education for the poor?
  • What systems are required for the implementation of such a system?
  • Has free education or the poor been successful in lifting students from poor households out of poverty in other parts of the world?
  • How can privileged South African companies and individuals rally behind this call to ensure that legacy of apartheid is genuinely changed though empowering impoverished South Africans who need the education to improve their lot?

Until some of these questions and much more are genuinely interrogated and addressed critics of free higher education for the poor in South Africa are maybe beating the wrong drum. South Africa cannot go wrong with offering for less than 1 percent of GDP free quality higher education for the poor. Free quality higher education is a move in the right direction and if correctly implemented will lift many out of poverty. If properly applied will offer an opportunity for the child of a mine worker, the child of a domestic worker, a petrol attendant, a waiter to name a few a chance to dream and become a CEO of SA’s top companies and be productive members of Society.


Dr. Vivian A. Atud is a partner at Atud and Associates.


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