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Free, quality education requires education-centred decisions not bounded by macroeconomics

Bathabile Dlamini is President of the ANC Women's League and Minister of Social Development. See her Wikipedia profile here.

The rights of all to education include the most basic right of the millions of children who are at the foundational stages of their life – the first thousand days, known as Early Childhood Development, is greatly neglected and the remaining 65 or more years of their lives will be affected.

Without detracting from the legitimate demands of the thousands of students who have escalated the fees must fall demands into headline news, we must also recognise that there are many levels of education and we must ensure that the most vulnerable are protected. 

We must also take into account that while the protesters have not been given their demand of no-fee tertiary level education, they have successfully achieved no-fee increments in 2016 and much relief for students in 2017. 

These are huge gains in a small amount of time. The current student protest leaders have greatly contributed to South Africans wanting to get higher education, but while we celebrate their achievements we must bear in mind that the “unfortunate” thing about governance is that such major changes need to be planned for and implemented in a manner that builds the entire value chain of education.

The rights of all to education include the most basic right of the millions of children who are at the foundational stages of their life – the first thousand days, known as Early Childhood Development, is greatly neglected and the remaining 65 or more years of their lives will be affected. 

So we need to consider the broad spectrum of our society, particularly those who are beneath the poverty line, as they raise their families. 

Free quality education is a right that extends to all levels of education. If we accept the premise of free education at all levels, then we need to find the means to include the most important stages of development. This will require ensuring in the first instance that the key foundational phases are free and qualitative. Now that we have made the most critical component of education a public good – Early Childhood Development (ECD) – we are struggling to raise the necessary resources to make this most vital foundational phase accessible.

The need for quality free primary and secondary education is equally important. This too needs government investment following a disastrous set of decisions in the 1990s and early 2000s when macroeconomic decisions were made as opposed to “education decisions” that would be good for education.

A political decision to immediately divert educational resources to Higher Education without the necessary plans in place to resource and fund the entire educational needs including ECD, primary and secondary education may in fact be just as bad as the poor macroeconomic decisions made in the aftermath of GEAR. 

Free Higher education NOW will essentially defund universities. If this is accompanied by diverting of funds from other vital areas of social spending, it will be disastrous – a further defunding of ECD, basic education and secondary education AND a broken tertiary education system.

To ensure that we make good and binding decisions on funding all education, we need to make student leaders form part of the decision-making process.

This can be done through them being key role players in a National Planning Commission-led subcommittee that will look at developing a strategy that would make all education free and qualitative. This will include looking at time frames and prioritising funding imperatives.

This subcommittee should be able to examine the entire budget of government as projected over the next 10 years. This will allow for considered discussions on macroeconomic policy, tax policy, diverting of funds from scrapping wasteful expenditure and spending plans that may not be seen as wise or contributing to building a more equitable society. This subcommittee must include developmental economists and planners and not only the coterie of orthodox economists that somehow seem to dictate our economic planning landscape.

In the age of instant gratification, the demands for NOW will have repercussions on society beyond the immediate life spans of those who seek major policy changes as if its instant coffee. With more students needing to “come in” and fewer exiting, the spectre of overcrowding and therefore diminished quality of teaching becomes a real threat.

The competition to be the most radical voice in the house should not see another destructive vanguardist approach emerging that seeks short-term gratification at the expense of genuinely free education.

The #FeesMustFall movement must be seen as an opportunity to review our policy-making machinery where state funding for social needs is still bounded by a rather conservative fiscal framework. We must look at the kinds of budgetary processes and budgets envisioned in the Reconstruction and Development Programme and that the Macroeconomic Research Group (MERG) was working on before they were unceremoniously dumped in 1996 so that a new set of conservative economists could draft GEAR.

The development of a transformative budget is necessary now and in that process we have to look at what the issues are that serve to “bind” the budget. This includes the restrictive monetary policy and inflation targeting and also the implementation of measures to curb capital flight. 

In conclusion, we must be wary of the mainstream discourse that paints those who champion monetary policies as “wise” and “sensible” saints , and those who favour pro-poor budgets and policies as demons in the media. The false sinner-and-saints narrative is powerful and continues to play itself out here, in Brazil and in other Latin American countries where the gains of the left are being undone be elite forces and voices. DM

Dlamini is Minister of Social Development.


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