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A way out of the fees crisis that faces tertiary education in South Africa

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Bonang Mohale is chancellor of the University of the Free State, former president of Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), professor of practice at the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) in the College of Business and Economics and chairperson of The Bidvest Group, ArcelorMittal and SBV Services. He is a member of the Community of Chairpersons (CoC) of the World Economic Forum and author of two bestselling books, Lift As You Rise and Behold The Turtle. He has been included in Reputation Poll International’s (RPI) 2023 list of the “100 Most Reputable Africans”. He is the recipient of the 2023 ME-Vision Academy’s “Exclusive Recognition in Successful Leadership” award.

Perhaps it is time for business to be called upon to intervene in the tertiary education crisis and jointly decide that it will assist in clearing R16.5-billion historic student debt. 

“Lack of access to education must be our new collective and singular enemy … Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it” — Frantz Fanon.

The reason why we all collectively ultimately defeated the might of apartheid is because we all had the same enemy — the apartheid system.

Student protests against fees are not new, but an extension of the unresolved past in post-apartheid South Africa. It is a rebellion of the poor to raise public awareness about the shortage of funding for higher education. 

What started in early 2015 as a series of protests at the University of Cape Town against the statue of Cecil John Rhodes calling for an institutional culture that reflects their Africanness to decolonise higher education in South Africa, including its curriculum, and for advances in equity and inclusivity (decolonisation of institutions and minds; democratisation and managerialism) expanded by mid-October into a nationwide student movement under the label #FeesMustFall — a student-led protest movement, the goals of which were initially to stop increases in student fees as well as to increase government funding of universities.

Seven years later, every year without fail at the beginning of each academic year, the country bears witness when students at most, if not all 26 public universities, embark on protest marches against financial exclusion, invariably leading to the suspension of the academic programmes and resultant police deployment.

There is no doubt that higher education is in crisis with the cost of delivering university education about R50-billion annually. State contributions have declined while the burden on students has increased with the increase in tuition fees.

This is exacerbated by the R5.7-billion NSFAS shortfall that earlier this year led to the department’s decision to cap first-time university entrants. The majority of students come from impoverished backgrounds. 

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has also admitted that it does not have a plan to fund students referred to as the “missing middle” — students who do not meet the NSFAS financial eligibility criteria but still struggle to afford higher education. These students are referred to as the missing middle as many are not able to access higher education due to their inability to source bank loans and other sources of funding. 

Information based on submissions made by 21 of the 26 public universities demonstrates that between 2010 and 2020 more than 100,000 former students were yet to receive their qualification certificates, but this had not happened because they have outstanding fees totalling more than R10-billion. This historic debt in 2020 was audited by the DHET and is sitting at R16.5-billion for institutions, R9-billion of which was not considered to be recoverable.

This has caused a sustainability crisis in our higher education institutions. Year after year, government’s budgetary constraints nibble away at the effectiveness of the higher education system, undermining its status as the continent’s strongest and as one that is globally recognised as being highly productive.

The determination which has seen these students battle all odds to make it to the first year shows a hidden talent and resilience that the country can ill afford to lose. Thus measures are required to ensure they succeed when they reach university. Clearly what is required is business collaboration to address the student funding shortfall, while a long-term strategy for managing student funding is being developed, strongly supported by the government.

A huge effort should be initially focused on raising funds to assist students who have completed their studies and are due to graduate but have outstanding debt. Debt drives students to despair, leads to mental health issues and increases both food insecurity and period poverty.

Maybe this is another epoch in which, like the National Education Collaboration Trust (Nect), business is called upon to intervene and must again decide that it is going to eliminate the entire R16.5-billion historic debt. Business does not even have to find new funds for this but simply redirect their current committed CSI budget that is dedicated to education into this “Historic Debt Fund”. 

Imagine for a moment that each company can contribute a minimum of R1-million with government’s commitment to match this. 

With more than 1.5 million medium-sized companies, 800 Securities that are currently available on the JSE’s Equity Market, approximately 400 companies listed across the Main Board and the AltX Board with about 60 Equity Market member firms authorised to trade on the market, and the JSE Equity Market Data that is used by clients and investors in more than 40 countries, this is a big ask. 

But with the will, determination and dedication to succeed we can, together with all our social partners, obliterate this blight that afflicts our own children, nieces and nephews. DM

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  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    1. The violence and destruction of property seems to generally start with the students (ofyen anonymously), police mostly called in due to violence and destruction of property already caused. Would be interesting to see if those that cause destruction are still being supported.
    2. What subjects do those that rely on grants study? Does business need another political studies student? What were their pass marks, and how often have they passed or failed? What happens to students that fail multiple times? Let’s have some statistics here.
    3. Does everyone have a right to study for free? Even countries that actually can afford free education don’t offer that to everyone; decent school marks to study are required yet our matric is a joke and simply not an indicator who should be studying. Strict aptitude tests would help, but that would cause a wave of probably violent objections.
    4. what other alternative study options are available? Like plumbers, electricians etc? Should we not help to finance their studies rather from the perspective of what this country needs?
    5. What is being done about the corruption in the NSFAS (just one example: R170 million tender for a biometric attendance monitoring system awarded to the Grayson Reed consortium).

    Yet again the government/ANC is failing in this regard, yet again its the tax payer and evil private business that needs to help, yet again obvious solutions and problems are being ignored.

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