Indebted and angry

As South Africa’s universities edge towards the end of a very difficult academic year, clear differences between campuses have become evident. At the University of Cape Town, there is an uneasy truce. Bar a few minor incidents, examinations have been completed and December’s graduation ceremonies are expected to go ahead. But at the University of the Western Cape there have been continuing protests and many examinations have had to be abandoned. And the Cape Peninsular University of Technology has been all but closed, with buildings torched and student residences cleared. Here, many final year students will now fail to qualify leaving their futures uncertain and their work opportunities at risk.

The immediate reasons for these differences are complex. And, in circumstances as volatile as these, there can be few secure predictions about what may come next, other than the evident observation that universities’ problems are far from other. Step back a bit, though, and there is one evident determinant of both continuing conflict and the differences between these three very different universities; student debt.

Given South Africa’s historical affinities, both positive and negative, comparisons are often made with Higher Education in Britain. In terms of fees alone, a British student will accumulate an obligation of £27 000 for a three year degree, which is about R570 000 at the current rate of exchange. In comparison, the fees over three years at the UCT will be about R150 000, and less at UWC and CPUT. For a student from a well-off South African family, perhaps qualifying as an accountant at UCT and planning to work in London for a few years to gain experience, this is a great offer; a qualification that is recognized in the City, discounted by 75%. But for students who have to borrow money to pay their fees, their circumstances are very different and far, far worse in South Africa.

A British student can expect to get a full loan by right of citizenship, irrespective of household income. Initial payments due to the university are met from the loan account and no repayment is required before graduation. After graduation, repayment is contingent on income and not on the size of the balance. Interest is below commercial rates and, should any balance remain after 30 years, it is written off. While not technically a graduate tax, Britain’s student loan functions this way, with substantial state subsidy. There is a strong incentive for families who could well afford university fees to take out loans against their children’s academic qualifications, because it’s a cheaper form of finance that a mortgage on the family home over the same period.

Now to South Africa. Here, there is no right to State finance by right of citizenship, and a student from a family with gross household income of more than R180 000 a year is unlikely to qualify; this is about £8 500 and well below Britain’s minimum wage. Further, there’s no guarantee that the money will be there; this academic year NSFAS – the State funding agency – only had sufficient funds to meet about half of its obligations to qualifying students. For those who don’t qualify for loans, or for whom the loans are inadequate, student debt in South Africa is hard debt. There are upfront fees to pay at registration and those who have any outstanding debt cannot graduate and enter the labour market with qualifications.

This is rather like saying to a family in Britain, earning household income at the national average, that they must surrender their entire pre-tax household income for a year before they will be allowed in to their son or daughter’s graduation ceremony.

Back now to Cape Town’s three – very different – universities. There are many students at UCT who need and receive financial assistance. And there are many unresolved issues. But, in comparative terms, student debt is much less of a problem than at UWC and CPUT. These two universities serve Cape Town’s low and middle income families, as well as substantial numbers from the City’s townships. For these students, and their families, debt is raw, visceral and lived out through compromises; minimal living standards, not enough to eat, no chance of buying books. Universities are a promise of opportunity and the inspiration for dreams; debt crushes both.

Last week, CPUT student leaders wrote an open letter to their families, published in the local newspaper. While much of this details their fight with the university’s Council and management – matters that are of course disputed – the underlying wound of debt and the impossible financial circumstances of students from poor and average financial circumstances comes through clearly:

You do not get your final results which are needed in order to apply for a job. …You do not get to register the next year unless your debt is fully cleared – even if it’s R100 000, you still need to pay. … NSFAS does not cover carry-over debt even though the fund refused to pay for the previous year’s study … When you graduate with debt, you do not obtain your certificate and academic records to prove that you are qualified. It becomes to impossible to find a job to pay off your loans. … Do you know that there are students who have just one or two outstanding modules to complete their qualifications? But because they have debt, the university refuses to allow them to register for these modules to complete their studies … the most vulnerable are female students who try all possible things to raise the money in a big city like Cape Town. The most extreme practice that we know about is sleeping with old opportunistic men in return for the R5 000. The guys mostly resort to theft and sale of illegal substances with the express purpose of getting registered.

Universities such as UWC and CPUT do the heavy lifting of social and economic transformation. Unless the problem of funding for students from low and middle income families is fixed, problems will continue and escalate. There will also be lasting damage to the South African economy; about half of the country’s population is under the age of 25 and the competencies of the future workforce will be determined by investment in the education of present and coming generations from low and middle income families.

The decision by universities, negotiated with government, that will see no fee increases in 2016 may be good politics; it’s terrible economics. Because the government has agreed to recompense universities proportional to their loss of anticipated revenue, the universities with the highest fees and the largest proposed fee increases will receive the most cash. In order to find the funds – which are unbudgeted against tax revenues – the Department of Education and Training will probably have to abandon projects that were intended to enable universities like UWC and CPUT improve their facilities and support for the least well off students.

The overall consequences will be economically regressive, both at the institutional level and at the individual level. The worse resourced universities will receive little to help them catch up. And students from well-off families, who had anticipated a 10% fee increase in 2016, will be better off.

Understandably, students at CPUT and UWC have been getting a bad press; burning buildings, intimidation and assault are anathema to the idea of a university. But there are messages in the miasma of rage that need to be heard. So last word to #FeesMustFall_CPUT:

We, your children at CPUT, are faced with a tremendous difficulty in terms of completion of our studies and consequently obtaining our qualifications …. We are frustrated, vulnerable, emotional and injured – please intervene as CPUT is a public university.


Cape Times: “CPUT: open letter to parents, public”. 19 November 2015.


Grey New World

When Tlalane Letlhaku went along to the gala opening of H & M at Cape Town’s Waterfront, she wanted to know why there were no black models in the store windows.  “Please work on that to appeal to everyone”, she wrote. To which H and M replied, in the self-immolation-by-tweet that is now common in the virtual world, “H&M’s marketing has a major impact and it is essential for us to convey a positive image”.

Is it far-fetched to see H & M as the linear successor to Cecil John Rhodes, surveying their commercial hinterland with the assurance of superiority? Indeed, H &M’s window displays are very white.  Despite their quick apology – “in no way does H&M state that positivity is linked to an ethnic group” – no overnight makeovers here.  H & M is sticking to its guns:  “H & M is proudly a global brand that embraces all people who are inspired by fashion, regardless of ethnic background, gender or culture”. In this shop window, whiteness rules.

The problem, however, with casting H & M as the exception is that they are not.  Some brisk fieldwork in the broad and opulent walkways of the Waterfront Mall – named for Queen Victoria and her son Alfred – reveals a plethora of whiteness.  Zara’s Web page “offers South Africa a uniquely southern hemisphere collection which is constantly updated by delivering new merchandise to stores twice weekly”; it’s windows radiate whiteness. 

Online, Levi’s is a model of political virtue; “following the peaceful democratic elections in 1994, Levi Strauss & Co. was one of the first global companies to re-enter the South African market. Committed to empowerment and upliftment, 80% of its first staff intake were previously unemployed or had no prior industry experience”.  And all Levi’s models in its Waterfront store – and on its South African web page – are white.   

Across the way from Levi’s, Fellowes Africa offers a “carved wooden colonial butler”, nestled in with bright fabrics and carved buffalo.  Here, at  “South Africa’s best African interior shop”, there is at last consistency without pretence; black bodies, the bush and subservience, uncomplicated by irony.


Others, though, are a few steps ahead.  Mr Price has a good smattering of black bodies, although the pernickety shopper might notice that their features are distinctly Caucasian; are these white mannequins that have been spray-painted? Mr P does a lot better on its Web page – “we believe that fashion is for everyone” – so there could be supply problem here. 

Perhaps, given the monochrome vision of H &M, Zara, Levi’s and the like, its just not possible to acquire black mannequins for shop window displays in South Africa?  I asked Google:  “where can I buy black mannequins in South Africa?”  Up came Display Equipment Company (Pty) Ltd:

Our mannequins are available in full body with heads, full body without heads, ¾ figure forms, torso’s (with or without stands) and underwear models, in both male and female variants.  Our skilled technicians have all the knowledge and capabilities to enable us to repair and maintain mannequins competently as well as to repaint our current mannequins to the colours that our customers may desire.

If I wanted a black mannequin, then, it has to be either a colonial butler or something spray painted.  Ever helpful, the Display Equipment Company offers a bronzed prototype with improbable pectorals and three dark and shadowed clones.

Display Equipment Co

The winner for shop window diversity at the V and A Waterfront is Woolworths, South Africa’s incarnation of Marks and Spencer.  Here, there are elegant clusters of black men and women, wearing clothes that are “perfect for friends and family alike”.

There was, perhaps, some quiet satisfaction in Woolworths’ management offices as Tlalane Letlhaku’s finely-honed tweet sliced its way through H & M’s lavish layers of PR.  This, though, would not have lasted more than ten days because by mid-month Woolworths was saddled with its own mannequin mishap.

Shopper Mvusiwekhaya Sicwetsha had spotted a line-up of six black models that looked like a well-clothed chain gang.  He posted on Facebook, quickly picking up a couple of thousand likes:

I have a problem with the display of black dolls wearing your clothes with a rope on them in your stores. This depicts slavery and such display of this in your shop suggests you promote such barbaric acts against humanity. Please remove this rope on these black dolls with immediate effect. This is insulting us as black customers and anyone who is a victim of slavery.


Woolworths showed a good deal more commercial nous in their response than H & M. No appeal to universal values here; just a straight apology:

“Hi there.  You’ve got a very valid point.  We’ve contacted our store installation team and will get back to you as soon as we can”.  And later:  “we’re so sorry, it was a mistake”.

Their social media team should have left it at that.  The further explanation that the display had been incorrectly installed and that the six men were meant to be joined together by “Christmas baubles suspended off ropes” lacks credibility – has anyone seen six grown men actually doing this? 

And this for a further exoneration: the mannequins are made from recycled materials that are “naturally grey in colour”.  Consequently, they “don’t represent a particular race”; no offence can be given.

Does all this matter?  some may think not; there are plenty of other things to get angry and depressed about right now.  And to bring up this sort of thing is to invite a raised eyebrow, perhaps a sneer.  But there is surely something going on when the marketing departments of high end retail stores – so adroit in winkling our credit cards from our wallets – are so determined to express their values by whitewashing out the diversity of their customers.

Shop windows are a mirror to our aspirations, to our imagined future selves.  Under challenge, Woolworths offers regimented bodies, clutching Christmas decorations, and recycled to shades of grey; a grey new South Africa.


Destiny,  6 November 2015:  “H & M apologises for racially loaded Twitter response”.

Citizen, 17 November 2015:  “Woolworths responds to ‘slave ropes’ display”.

The Holy Grail of Learning Gain

There is no great enthusiasm for the proposed new framework for measuring teaching excellence across England’s universities. Most Vice-Chancellors who have commented have been critical and the first survey of university staff to come out since the government’s green paper was published is equivocal. But it’s worth a close look at the detail of what is being proposed. At its heart, and still beyond reach, is the holy grail of “learning gain”. If this can be measured, in a valid way that is credible with students, teachers and employers, then real improvements in quality will follow.

The early form of the Teaching Excellence Framework will only apply to English universities (because of devolved responsibilities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) and it will be launched using existing mechanisms and metrics; existing evaluations by the Quality Assurance Agency, and tried and tired metrics such as student retention, the National Student Survey and crude measures of graduate employment. The TEF has been roundly condemned for this, but such criticisms are based on a shallow reading. Here’s how the green paper sketches out the wider intentions:

As TEF develops we will incorporate new common metrics on engagement with study (including teaching intensity) and learning gain, once they are sufficiently robust and available on a comparable basis. We are also conscious that there are other possible proxies of teaching excellence. … However, we recognise that these metrics are largely proxies rather than direct measures of quality and learning gain and there are issues around how robust they are. To balance this we propose that the TEF assessment will consider institutional evidence, setting out their evidence for their excellent teaching.

Part of the reason for the lukewarm response is suspicion about the government’s ambitions for privatization. These proposals, if implemented, will make it much easier for new, for-profit, universities to be established and for existing universities to be taken over by commercial interests, in the same way that public facilities from water utilities to prisons have been sold off. But in amongst this neo-Thatcherite agenda are proposals that would fit comfortably in a Labour Party manifesto. Two are particularly relevant to the search for measuring learning gain.

First, the green paper proposes that measurements of teaching excellence should be matched with measures of social mobility. This is essential in the context of socioeconomic inequality. Study after study has shown persistent correlations between household income, the quality of schooling and access to Higher Education. Where you live matters, and the universities that do the heavy lifting are those that provide for large numbers of students who are first-in-family, from low income neighbourhoods or other localities with weak traditions of university attendance. The approach proposed for the TEF will make each university’s contribution to social mobility apparent in it’s public profile of quality.

Secondly, the green paper exposes the current conventions for grading degrees as the sham that they are:

The Higher Education Academy found that nearly half of institutions had changed their degree algorithms to; ‘ensure that their students were not disadvantaged compared to those in other institutions’. …. Over 70% of graduates now get a First Class or 2:1 degree, compared with just 47% in the mid-1990s. In 2013/14, over 50% of students were awarded a 2:1, suggesting that this grade band not only disguises considerable variation in attainment, but also permits some to coast.

In response, the green paper is proposing a planned transition to a Grade Point Average system, that can incorporate authentic measures of what learners actually achieve in their time in Higher Education. The push for this will, increasingly, be from both students and employers.

GPA measures have, of course, long been an accepted currency in the US, and are known to have a strong correlation with student progression, graduation and subsequent success. Indeed, the US is now edging beyond the use of GPA measures and towards the acceptance of competency measures. Degree classifications are a debased currency, and need to go.

But the challenge of measuring learning gain still remains.

As the green paper notes,

Our expectation is that effective metrics will be:

  • valid: the metric provides a useable measure of or proxy for teaching quality

  • robust: the metric is based on accurate data that has been subject to rigorous quality assurance

  • comprehensive: the metric provides wide coverage (except in the case of some additional metrics) that enables institutional and subject level comparisons

  • credible: the metric is established and has gained the confidence of the sector

  • current: the metric has been collected in the last 3 years.

The rich digital footprint that every student leaves now offers the possibility of meeting these standards in developing acceptable proxies for learning gain.

For example, pilot studies have shown how the language used by learners in online engagement can be analysed for semantic development, tracking whether or not students move towards the use of more abstract conceptualization. In a second example, network analysis shows how those on a course move from dependency on a one-to-one relationship with an instructor and towards forming independent, peer-to-peer learning initiatives.

These are early days. But the timeline that’s been set out for the Teaching Excellence Framework allows for the development and applications of new measures that will be reasonable proxies for the value that is added by completing a university-level programme. This must surely be a prize worth pursuing.


BIS: “Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice”. Green Paper, November 2015.

Jack Grove, “Lukewarm support for TEF from university staff, survey shows”. Times Higher Education. November 11 2015


Amandla. mobi is “working to turn every cell phone into a democracy building tool so that no matter where you live, what language you speak or what issue you care about, you can take action with others”. On 29 October, as universities were absorbing the implications of the most extensive student protests in South Africa’s history as a democracy, finally pushed the Department of Higher Education and Training into releasing a key report that’s been on Ministers’ desks since December 2012. Titled “Fee Free University Education for the Poor in South Africa”, it has a sharp and immediate relevance.

The report is appropriately dry and technical, and is buttressed by detailed financial modelling; no revolutionary manifesto. But its key finding is clear:

Free university education for the poor in South Africa is feasible, but will require significant additional funding of both NSFAS and the university system.

The working group’s 2012 report builds on a second key report to the Minister. Again, conclusions are unequivocal:

The Ministerial Review of NSFAS (2010) found not only that NSFAS and its resources have not been well governed and optimally managed since its inception, but some 72% of NSFAS-funded students drop out, indicating that access is not being translated into academic success.

These and all other indicators point to NSFAS – the National Student Financial Aid Scheme – being at the heart of the issue. In any Higher Education system, the ways in which students are funded defines the mission of universities, who has access to them, and the role that qualifications play in shaping the broader economy and society. NSFAS is no exception.

In the 2012 working group report, as today, “free education” is a term of convenience for a more complex and qualified basket of proposals. Although and other activist groups have called for the immediate implementation of the working group’s recommendations, the proposals are limited in scope.

The primary focus is on providing full financial support for students from families that do not earn enough to pay any income tax. In 2012, this threshold was R54 200; today it would be combined household earnings of R70 700 a year, or just under R6000 per month. Given the combined cost of fees, accommodation, books and study materials, transport and food, it follows that no student with such limited financial means could take up a place at university without full financial support.

Of equal significance, as the working group report emphasizes, is the “missing middle”: working families that earn too much to qualify for NSFAS loans and bursaries, but not nearly enough to be able to afford the cost of a university place. In 2012, when the report for the Minister was completed, the NSFAS eligibility threshold was R122 000 per annum. Today, eligibility is based on a means test; universities advise that students from families where combined earnings are more than R180 000 a year are unlikely to qualify. Given that fees alone are likely to be in the region of R50 000 a year, its evident that the unfunded “missing middle” is broad, and engulfs families across lower paid public sector jobs, much of the service sector, manual workers and single parent families.

What does the cost of access look like for these middle income families? Assuming that fees amount to about half the total cost of being at university, a family will have to find at least R300 000 for the completion of a first degree. Assuming again that the family is able to spend a third of its annual disposable income on providing for university costs, household income will have to be at least R400 000 a year before tax. In reality, university education in South Africa is unaffordable for families earning between R180 00 and R500 000 a year, unless they are able to win bursaries from their university of choice.

The 2011 census put average household income in South Africa at R103 204. This, though, was sharply differentiated by race; the average income for black households was R60 600, while the average household income for white families was six times higher, at R365 000 per annum. It is unlikely that this gap has narrowed over the intervening four years. Factoring in inflation, it’s a reasonable guess that the average annual income of black households is now about R75 000 and the average for white households is about R450 000. This shows why inequities in university access continue to be racialized; while university education is unattainable for less well off white households, it is far more unattainable for very many more black households.

Looked at another way, a large number of those in white collar and professional positions, where highly-paid opportunities are available for appropriately qualified people, are not able to afford a university place for their children. A bank teller currently earns an average of R84 500 a year, a schoolteacher R176 500 and a registered nurse, R179 000. And nurses and teachers at the top of their pay scales do not bring home more than R300 000 a year.

South Africa is a highly unequal society; consequently there is also a significant sector of households that can easily afford current fees and associated costs. The comparisons that they will make will be between the costs of a degree at one of South Africa’s more prestigious universities and the cost of an overseas qualification. In this fame, South Africa is good value for money; at the current exchange rate, UCT’s fees are less than a third of a comparably ranked university in Britain.

Given this, the catch-line of “free education” will need to be disaggregated into a hybrid model that reflects South Africa’s position as one of the most income-unequal countries in the world. As the 2012 working group report emphasized, full cost support must be provided for the poorest families; a key decision will be where to position this threshold. For those who earn more, but not enough to cover all costs, the availability of income contingent loans and bursaries will need to be extended. Again, the key decision will be the positioning of the threshold. For wealthy households, where a good South African degree is heavily discounted in the international job market, the issue is rather the most appropriate and efficient form of taxation. Given that top rates of marginal tax in South Africa are currently lower than in some affluent economies, there is an obvious opportunity for looking at equitable ways of providing funds for grants and income contingent loans.

Looking beyond the immediate question of access to adequate funding to cover the total cost of a university education, the working group’s report makes a number of other points that deserve careful consideration. One of these is that universities have, through the years, exacerbated the shortage of financial aid thinly, with the result that a large number of students have too little, increasing the probability that they wont be able to survive at university long enough to qualify:

The university practice of ‘topslicing’, where the means test results are disregarded and the available NSFAS funds are shared out and spread thinly, between all eligible students, has major negative consequences for students and institutions, in the form of both increased debt and limited academic success.

This, the report suggested, may lock poorer students into a poverty trap, in part accounting for the failure of some 70% of NSFAS loan recipients to complete their qualification. As part of the response to this, the working group recommended that students from the poorest families be given outright grants:

The current practice of excluding poor performing students from subsequent NSFAS support, even if well-intentioned, should be re-thought. The current practice does not acknowledge the convergence of disadvantage that confronts low income students in particular. Having attended poor performing schools, they are already underprepared for university education; by denying them renewed NSFAS support because of poor academic performance – without providing them with the academic support to overcome such obstacles – is to recycle them back into poverty from which their student debt will never let them escape.

President Zuma is reported to be planning a Commission to review all aspects of student funding. That could be a mistake, given the urgency of the current situation; now that zero fee increases have been declared for 2016, attention will turn to 2017 and beyond. A moratorium on fee increases is the bluntest of instruments, paralyzing universities and providing a range of undeserved benefits for those who should be paying more for their education and not less.

Instead, the President has the opportunity to update and extend the recommendations in the 2012 working group report, as well of those in the earlier Ministerial reviews of NSFAS and of student housing provision. He also has the clear mandate of his own government’s National Development Plan. As the working group report notes:

Apart from pointing to the immense advantages that higher education in general confers both on society and on individuals, the National Development Plan targets a 25% graduation rate and a 30% participation rate across the higher education system by 2030. It notes that any and all improvements in the quantity and quality of graduates will require a greater emphasis on output-based funding on universities, but that this can be achieved without discouraging the enrolment of disadvantaged students. Accordingly, it advocates increased funding for higher education generally, and in particular full funding for eligible NSFAS students through loans and bursaries so as to cover their tuition fees, accommodation, books and other living expenses. The costs of thus supporting needy students can be recovered through arrangements with the South African Revenue Service, and also through service-linked or work-back scholarships such as already exist for teachers and social workers; and the success of these students can be further facilitated by providing more academic support.

What could be clearer than this?

Bongani Nkosi. “Nzimande withheld ‘free varsity’ report”. Mail and Guardian, 23 October 2015. Draft report: “ Report of the Working Group on Fee Free University Education for the Poor in South Africa”. Submitted October 2012. Released 29 October 2015, following requirements of the Promotion of Access to Information Act. Available at: