South Africa

Open letter to Minister Gordhan in response to Wits academic Dr Kelly Gillespie

By Nicky Roberts & Oscar Van Heerden 19 October 2016

NICKY ROBERTS and OSCAR VAN HEERDEN, former students of Turfloop, University of the Witwatersand; University of Cape Town, University of Kwazulu-Natal,University of the Western Cape, University of Cambridge and University of Johannesburg, respond to Wits academic Dr Kelly Gillespie's letter to Minister Pravin Gordhan.

Dear Minister Gordhan,

We know that you are facing far, far bigger national problems, were in court last week and have been left out of the higher education funding ministerial panel. We are sorry to disturb, we realise that the “battle in Braamfontein” pails into insignificance now. We would however like to offer a counter-opinion to the one you received from our colleague Dr Kelly Gillespie last week and which is being circulated on social and other media.

In contrast to apportioning blame to you for the situation at University of Witwatersrand we would like to thank you for the delicate balancing act which your department is performing. We would like to commend the South African government for maintaining the rule of law and upholding the autonomy of higher education institutions. We would like to further commend you for the work you and your department are doing to closely guard both how our public money is spent, and ensure that income owing to our public purse reaches it.

We would like to thank you for responding to the underfunding of higher education relatively swiftly and for the additional funding which this sector has received last year and this. We refer to the statement made by Minister Blade Nzimande:

Higher Education and Training this year received an additional 18% for 2016/17‚ with an average annual increase of 9.8% across the Medium Term Expenditure Framework period up until 2018/19. From R42-billion in the 2015/16 financial year‚ the Department’s budget is set to rise to R55.3-billion in 2018/19.

Government has this year provided R1.9-billion of the R2.3-billion shortfall resulting from the subsidisation of the 2016 university fee increase.

More than R4.5-billion in the 2016/17 financial year has been reprioritised to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

We support the call for additional funding for higher education; and for putting education at the centre of our national agenda. In fact we think this is in line with our collective 2030 vision, where education (which we take to mean life-long learning) is prioritised. We further support the calls for “free education” (which we take to mean “education that is not paid for by poor South Africans”).

We know that education costs, and that quality education costs a lot. We know too that our education system is highly unequal and that there is a need to craft and wield pro-poor redress mechanisms at all levels of the system (from prenatal women’s health for the first 1,000 days of a learner’s life which spans from conception to their third birthday, through Early Childhood Development, to our recent addition of free Grade R to the majority of our citizens, to primary school, secondary schooling, where it branches into Further Education and training at school at TVET collages, and finally into higher education). For while education is a weapon for emancipation, so too is it weapon for social exclusion and economic marginalisation.

We do not agree that higher education ought to be biggest priority within the public education spending and reprioritisation. While more higher education funding is needed we do not think that this should all come from the public purse. We believe that universities are privileged, well organised networks of advantaged individuals who ought to be encouraged to leverage their funding requirements from a range of sources. We certainly think that the South African private sector is able to invest more into these institutions.

We fear that the current demands by a small group of university students, at times supported by academic staff, are neither reasonable, nor attainable. We refer back to the historic texts which reflect education as one of our key national and public assets. The Freedom Charter stipulates that,

The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened! The government shall discover, develop and encourage national talent for the enhancement of our cultural life; All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands; The aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace; Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit; Adult illiteracy shall be ended by a mass state education plan; Teachers shall have all the rights of other citizens; The colour bar in cultural life, in sport and in education shall be abolished.”

The choice of words here, with education as “free … and equal for all children”, was both significant and deliberate. “Higher education open to all, by means of state allowances and scholarships” is a well considered component of the county’s vision of opening the doors of learning and culture.

Consulting the ANC resolution from the 2012 Mangaung conference reveals a similar policy commitment: “Implementing free higher education for the poor in South Africa” and “free higher education for all undergraduate level from poor and working class communities for phased implementation from 2014”.

The later parts of the higher education resolution also refer to “academically capable students from poor families….’”and later to “academically capable students from working class and lower middle class families…”.

In a country that suffers from the triple concerns of poverty, inequality and lack of decent work, how the national budget is used to redress the past and create opportunities for the present is a very tough decision. As you know more than most, this requires balancing expenditure allocations for competing priorities, ensuring sufficient public income and also finding creative ways in which the public funds can be augmented from other sources.

We think the current government path of prioritising free higher education funding for the poor must be maintained. We therefore appeal to you to maintain the distinction between “free education” and “zero fees for all”. Fees are used as per-student levy which can effect transformation and prioritise particular groups in society to experience free education. In the absence of using fees as one possible redress mechanism; our fear is that the rich citizens (who earn more than R600,000 per annum) will no longer contribute to the higher education via fees, but continue to take up available undergraduate places.

There will be no fees for them to pay, and/or they will migrate to private higher education institutions, and/or they will access higher education in foreign countries. Our public higher education institutions cannot benefit from this potential source of non-government funding. With “zero fees” our universities will not obtain the fee-income from foreign governments who send their students to our public institutions; or private companies that pay for priority qualifications.

We know that some of our academic colleagues, students and friends will label us as reactionary, an ANC/government apologist, counter revolutionary, liberal, neoliberal, racist, conservative, neoconservative, anti-liberation, colonial relics, and anti-student. So be it.

We choose to defend ourselves here on just one of these labels (anti-student). The “students” for whom we may appear to be “anti-student” are not the “students” to which we refer. You see – unlike our colleague who wrote to you earlier – we don’t work only with undergraduate students. In particular, our work is much lower down in the education hierarchy which also desperately requires fixing and investment to make us the nation we hope for. So “the students” we hold in mind are different to those whom Dr Gillespie chooses to describe to you.

The students we hold in mind are the poor South African and SADC students at our universities who face very serious hardship if not completing this year. The students we hold in mind are the 5-6-year-olds who had a chance of being offered a second year of free education at pre-Grade R level, for whom this major investment now seems very less likely. We hold in mind the students who are between 0 and 5 years old for whom there is very little “free education” at a time in their life that we know most impacts on their future, and at a point in time when we know we get the best return on investment in terms of learning outcomes and the possibility for future learning (unlike at undergraduate levels where through-puts are only 1 in 3, investing early in education for the poor has been shown internationally to yield far as greater results).

The students we hold in mind are the students at TVET colleges and historically disadvantaged universities who sacrificed their pro-poor state infrastructure grants to increase state spending on undergraduate funding for all. We are also aware that both the undergraduates burning and throwing stones as well as those who are casualties caught in the crossfire of these protests are a small minority of our South African university students, who in turn are a very small minority (only 12%) of their Grade 1 class who started formal schooling with them.

The students we hold in mind are the students in-utero in poor communities, whose mothers don’t yet access paltry child-grants (which are R4,200 per year in comparison to R8,113.50 which our colleague Professor Vally reports is the current government expenditure on an undergraduate student at Wits). These young students require micronutrients, food, safety, protection from violence and other basic human rights to provide a stable and loving home where toxic stress is reduced, so that their brain architecture for all future learning can develop healthily. We draw on both brain science and economics for our argument to support early investment in education for all of South Africa’s poor.

Please, please, please consider the smoke and noise from whence it comes. When decisions are made that gloss over the lived experiences of inequality, and claim that “all lives matter”, or “all animals are equal” or “free education of all” (and especially when these are shouted with revolutionary fervour from the ivory towers of certain universities), we inadvertently get greater inequality: a situation we simply cannot support.

We can neither defend nor justify a situation where a privileged few who shout the loudest to ensure they are first in line clutching a begging bowl to our National Treasury get to eat more of the pie. You know that South Africa is a far bigger society than its universities. We appeal for greater public investments in women’s health, pre-natal care, programmes and economic support for parents of young children, free ECD education in our poor communities; and greater efficiency and repayment rates from NSFAS, before more of our money is directed to the university level to service those who are far better placed to access funding from non-government sources than the rest of our poor and less educated citizens are. DM

Photo: Students from Wits University use stolen shields to protect themselves as they advance during clashes with police forces during ongoing protests against the cost of higher education in Johannesburg, South Africa, 11 October 2016. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

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