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Populism will be the death of decent higher education for the poor

Date Released: Mon, 15 August 2016 14:08 +0200

by Sizwe Mabizela and Yunus Ballim

IT IS not difficult to recognise that what underlies the newspaper headlines on protests about higher education fees, curricula and colonial statues, is that the future of higher education in SA is being remade.

However, what many do not recognise is the very real threat that in this remaking the result may well be reduced access to competent and quality higher education studies by students from poor and working-class communities.

One of the worrying characteristics of recent developments in our country is that, when social institutions become dysfunctional or there is a serious decline in the quality of the services that they provide, parallel structures emerge to undertake their tasks.

Private security, private healthcare and private schooling are examples of such development. The result is that social justice remains accessible to the wealthy while the poor and the working class have to live with inadequate service delivery.

If we do not find sustainable solutions to the proper funding of public higher education institutions, we may well be in a situation where the wealthy send their children to private or foreign universities (as many are already doing for their undergraduate studies) while the children of the poor and working-class communities have to attend public universities to obtain qualifications of middling to mediocre quality.

Public universities have two principal streams of income to attend to their normal operational costs, state subsidy and student fees. Where universities are able to generate so-called third-stream income, these are encumbered funds for specific projects and are not available for the day-to-day running costs of the university. Indeed, third-stream income generally pays for the marginal cost of the project, rather than the full cost.

Lastly, public universities do not have shareholders, do not declare profits or dividends and do not pay taxes. Common corporate concepts like debt, gearing or tax avoidance strategies are therefore not available in the management of our universities.

This means that universities have to rely on state subsidy and student fees — and the present debate is about the relative proportion of each.

This proportional contribution approach also reflects the acknowledgment that higher education is both a private and a public good and that the "user" must pay for the private-good part.

But in a country as deeply unequal as ours, the "user pays" approach cannot apply as a generalisable principle.

The current clamour for fees reduction is very much about the fact that there is a large proportion of students whose families cannot contribute towards their university education and that the state should carry the full cost of providing higher education to such students.

Of course, at the other end, there is also an argument that the wealthy should be paying more fees. Indeed, many wealthy families send their children to private schools where the tuition fees are two to three times that of university fees, and they sustain this for 12 years of schooling.

Universal fee-free university education is a noble and a worthwhile aspirational goal to pursue. However, in our pursuit of this goal, we should safeguard, and indeed enhance, the quality of our public higher education system.

If we fail to do so, we run the risk of creating improved access to poor quality higher education.

How do we make access and affordability of quality public university education to all academically able students possible?

South African higher education has to deal with the problems of student access and institutional transformation without hobbling a system that is robust and that generally develops competent graduates who could hold their own anywhere in the world.

This cannot be done in an environment of declining funding where student fees are reduced and the state is not able to make up the difference in income. As in other sectors, the logical response may well be a growth in private higher education, further consolidating the race and class inequalities we are meant to be correcting.

To be sure, tuition fees are not the only or even the most significant factor influencing access to higher education. For many young South Africans, decisions about access to university are made for them by the quality and availability of competent primary and secondary schooling.

Also, in a world where the availability of seat space in higher education is smaller than the number of students who satisfy the admission requirements, a class-based selection process takes place by default.

In these cases, universities rank students according to academic performance and make offers of admission to the top-ranked students to the limits of their seat space. The top-ranked applicants are necessarily those whose parents could afford to send them to schools that were better able to prepare them to get higher marks in the matriculation examinations.

The threats are real and they are serious, but they are not insurmountable. Meeting the challenge will demand collective, collaborative and supportive efforts of students, university leadership, academics and support staff, workers, parents, sponsors and funders, private sector, the state and the entire South African society.

If we fail to respond adequately, imaginatively and creatively to these challenges, there is a real danger that our public higher education institutions may be imperilled. Should we get to that stage, it is the poor and the working-class students who will suffer the consequences — while the wealthy will be able to buy their way out of a defunct system.

Misguided populism and half-reasoned radicalism will not take us anywhere. More than ever before, we need cool, sober, creative and progressive thinking that helps us strengthen rather than weaken or destroy our public higher education system.

Dr Mabizela is vice-chancellor of Rhodes University and Prof Ballim vice-chancellor of Sol Plaatje University.

University of Cape Town. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES