Shutting Down the Rainbow Nation

(A shorter version of this post was published by Times Higher Education on 29 October 2015)

University campuses across South Africa have been simmering through much of this academic year. Over the past few weeks, discontent has crystallised into a nationwide protest against proposed tuition fee increases, leading to unprecedented campus closures and the disruption of exams. While the government has made major concessions for 2016, the real challenge is for 2017 and beyond.

While the cost of higher education is a real and pressing issue, South Africa’s universities are also a barometer of widespread discontent with the pace and direction of change twenty years after the end of apartheid. With 50 per cent of the country’s population under the age of 25 and both inequality and unemployment rising, wider fractures are beginning to show.

ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe has accused students who have drawn the comparison with the Arab Spring of being “pseudo-revolutionaries”. Given the state repression that has followed the uprising across a swathe of Arab states in 2011, vice-chancellors will take little comfort in this analogy either. But the cost of education, rising inequality and widespread unemployment are bound up with disillusionment with both the state and the gatekeepers of knowledge and opportunity. Fees and payment requirements are a spark to a bone-dry forest of far greater complexity.

University fees in South Africa are unregulated and have increased steadily in recent years. The current protests were triggered by some universities announcing increases of more than 10 per cent: close to twice the rate of inflation. Many students can barely afford food and housing at present fee levels, and further fee increases will make it impossible for them to continue in higher education. They have little prospect of employment as an alternative to study.

Students have been eloquent in making their case, as in this video, made at the height of last week’s protests, and titled “Shutting Down the Rainbow Nation”:

Students who barely get by on campus often experience difficult conditions at home. There have been mounting protests against failures in the delivery of service such as water, sanitation and health, in South Africa’s townships despite significant state investment over the past two decades. The prognosis for next year’s municipal elections has rattled the ruling African National Congress. As new and populist opposition to the ANC’s hegemony, the EFF has joined up discontent over continuing inequalities to campus politics, and a broad coalition of activists are advocating rapid and fundamental change.

Protests began in February, at the beginning of the academic year, when the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) announced it had insufficient funds to support all qualifying students. Student leaders at Tshwane University of Technology estimated that this, combined with the inability of students to pay off existing debt, would result in more than 20,000 students being excluded from further study. Confrontations with security guards and police led to campuses being closed and disruptions that have continued for most of the year.

In March, a protest that linked the inadequacies of basic facilities in the townships to the continuing legacy of colonialism brought together a broad coalition of black staff, students and low-paid service workers at the University of Cape Town. In August, a documentary revealing the continuing racism at the University of Stellenbosch went viral. The most recent protests, leading up to a national day of action on 21 October, were sparked by the University of the Witwatersrand’s announcement of a 10.5 per cent fee increase, and by similar levels of increase at other universities. Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s minister of higher education and training, initially dismissed talk of a crisis; by the end of the week it was apparent to everyone that these are the most widespread student protests in South Africa since the apartheid years.

The real costs to students of university study are often opaque and difficult to compare, with some institutions adding charges for services that their competitors include. Immediate issues may not be the overall cost of study so much as the scheduling of payments, with some universities requiring large upfront contributions. Others have put in place their own systems of economic redistribution, openly admitting to charging high fees to raise money they can then allocate to low-income students as bursaries. But financial need is notoriously difficult to estimate and there is little transparency in the processes followed.

Funding for the loans scheme has improved over the past decade, with a twenty-fold increase since 1997. But the upper eligibility threshold is low and many working families, who have found it close to impossible to pay university fees at current levels, earn too much to qualify (significantly, families have joined students in protesting against next year’s fee hikes at some universities).

The NSFAS is also chronically inefficient. South African universities have very high levels of student non-completion and growing unemployment makes loan recovery difficult; NSFAS reports 36 per cent decline in recoveries this year, compared to 2014/15. Given this, and the pressure on the Treasury to fund basic education, housing, health and municipal services, it is unlikely the state will pump more money into the student loan system.

In an initial attempt to head off further protests, vice-chancellors accepted Minister Nzimande’s proposal for a voluntary cap on tuition fee increases next year of 6 per cent: the anticipated rate of general inflation. Students rejected the initiative, campaigning instead for no increase and for free education, but it has opened up the possibility of the statutory regulation of fee levels: a measure the government is known to have been contemplating. Given the very wide range of quality and demand for places across South Africa’s higher education system, determining fees at specific universities will not be easy.

The situation was further exacerbated by police responses to protesting students, seen by many as excessive. Some universities went to the courts for interdicts against protesting students, allowing them to bring police on to campuses. This has backfired badly, enraging staff and widening support for the student cause. University Councils and Vice-Chancellors have had to backtrack, and go back to the courts to get their interdicts lifted.

The immediate outcome of last week’s day of action is a short-term compromise. On Friday, President Zuma abandoned his 6% proposal and  announced that there would be no fee increases in 2016. Although state subsidies to universities have increased by 7.7 per cent over the last three years, vice-chancellors had been looking to the minister for more, and will now look for additional compensation to cover the loss of revenue that will follow from freezing fee levels. In response, government emphasises the autonomy of universities and their obligations to contain costs. In the meanwhile, few of the issues raised by students have been addressed. Despite President Zuma’s announcements, some universities remained closed through the following week.

The call for no fee increases – and for free education – is good politics but poor economics. In a country with extreme inequality, freezing fees is similar to a regressive tax. Those celebrating President Zuma’s announcement of the 2016 fee moratorium will not only be low income families; middle and high income families, who can well afford to pay more, will also benefit. Further, unless there are structural changes, the problem will reoccur in 2017 and beyond.

A strong case is likely to be made for fixing NSFAS. This will require three key elements: adequate funding for present commitments; raising the eligibility threshold by a considerable amount to bring in a wider range of potential students; and improving the recovery of loans after students have finished at university and are in employment.

It is, though, difficult to see a fair and viable national student loan system without government regulation of student fees. This is because, without such regulation, escalating fee levels become a burden on the public finances via the loan system, and therefore a backdoor form of university subsidy.

South Africa already has the thinnest of buffers between universities and the state; consequently, fee regulation will be a significant diminution of university autonomy. Over the past week, Vice-Chancellors have been quick to lay responsibility on government, and to call for strong intervention to end the crisis. This may well come back, and bite.

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