Not being raised in South Africa has advantages and disadvantages. I am disadvantaged, for example, by not understanding the allure of charred hunks of animal flesh, consumed outdoors amidst clouds of biting flies and too many drunks. But I have experienced genuinely free higher education – and you know what? It is the most liberating experience any human being can have.
As I’ve noted before, all education is a system of filters. What passes through, and what gets held back, depend on the priorities of the society in question. Some of those filters are formal: exams; selection policies; high fees. Others are less formal: social pressures and prejudices; poor resources that fail to support the learning of some; lack of role models – and the indirect costs associated with getting educated.
I grew up poor. My father was a manual worker; my mother worked in a garment factory, as a hairdresser and, after I was born, full-time caring for us and our home. Later, my father was incapacitated by illness and we survived on social grants.
Had health services not been free when I was 5, I’d never even have made it into literacy, being so short-sighted that I once, famously, mistook a toddler in a camel-coloured coat for a Labrador. But I could get prescription specs with NHI frames (ugly round ones with transparent flesh-coloured surrounds) free, with no hassle or condemnation. Once I discovered I could read fine print, there was no holding back. My primary and secondary educations were also free, including subjects like art and music. Uniforms weren’t, so I was that kid with the Michelin Man roll of skirt waistband round my middle, so we did not have to buy a new one as I grew. And one of those who got regular demerit points, because it was purchased from a chain store rather than the preferred overpriced retailer.
Some things were still difficult. All my textbooks were free – but when we had project work, our income couldn’t always make extra research resources happen. A project on the Italian Renaissance nearly scuppered me: the relative who’d promised a trip to the (free) local art gallery let us down. The library was free and nearby. My mother wept as she helped me razor pictures from a borrowed book to illustrate my project. She was the most honest person I have ever known – but her child was not going to fail. Later, she scraped together cash to pay the fine for the ‘lost’ book and took the blame herself.
But without both loving and supportive parents and free healthcare, education, textbooks and libraries, I would never have made it to final exams and university. It’s called social mobility, and the prospect of that mobility is one key contributor to social cohesion.
And then university was free. Any university I wanted, that would have me. My local authority paid the university fees, and paid me a small but at that time adequate living grant. I got into one of the elite ones. I met and mingled with the children of Cabinet Ministers, captains of industry and kings. Many of them were dickheads, I and my socially mobile working-class peers (there were quite a lot of us in that era) agreed. But people like that were demystified; I got my confidence mojo.
Don’t preach at me that my family should have done all this and that they didn’t make sacrifices. They sacrificed the income they could have had, and desperately needed, if I’d gone out to work at 16. They sacrificed relationships and shared perspectives that were certainly altered by my social mobility. But they did not sacrifice half as much as they would have done if I’d had to spend the first third of my working life paying back a crippling loan too. Student loans to poor families just force them to keep on paying.
I can’t describe the sense of liberation that came from being able to study whatever I wanted, wherever I wanted at 18. Or from being able to pick any career afterwards (I eventually chose education) able to pay my good fortune forward in a relatively poorly remunerated profession without worrying about some damn loan.
But that was then, and this is now. A lot has changed. In the UK, all the things that made me have been commodified. They are no longer free: they are products you must buy – and if you can’t afford them, hard luck. As a result, the children of the rich are back in charge. Social mobility has slowed to a trickle; social cohesion is fragmenting.
With our heavy existing legacy of poverty and division, is that what we want to continue and intensify here? Because that’s what punitively expensive higher education in a high Gini-coefficient country will do.
That makes me want to weep. But even more tragic are the behaviour and utterances of once progressive politicians who’ve bought the gospel of commodified education, not as a right but as a purchase.
Passing the buck to the universities and long-delayed commissions of enquiry is not the answer. The Swartz Commission reported in 2012 that free varsity education for the children of the poor was feasible. It was shelved and never formally released. Government allowances to universities have increased in monetary terms, but fallen dramatically in both real value and student per capita terms (because of inflation, which is a government monetary policy issue, and rising student numbers, which are something government allegedly wants). In these circumstances, it is monstrously unfair to use university authorities as human shields against the full force of student wrath.
Some form of sliding-scale, means-tested support (such as Minister Nzimande proposed last week) initially looks like a helpful solution. But it’s problematic. If intended as loans, it puts additional, protracted burdens on poor families, as NSFAS loans already do. (The UK didn’t have many extended families. South Africa does, and a student in her first, even lucrative job – if she can find one –may have to support a dozen or more people.) Moreover, when many NSFAS-funded students still starve because their money has not arrived midway through their first term, why should anybody have confidence in the efficiency of means-testing administration?
But loans for commodified education are also not what the ANC fought for. Minister Nzimande’s assertion that richer students should be supporting poorer students was, at this juncture in the national controversy, a transparent tactic to divide the student body. That support should exist – but it should come from a more effective progressive taxation system across the board, not from finger-pointing at individual ‘rich students’. Such a tax system, of course, was another of the goals the ANC ostensibly fought for.
Then there was Gwede Mantashe’s distortion of the Freedom Charter as part of his cry to “close the universities to teach students a lesson”. Mantashe asserted that the Freedom Charter proposed granting access to higher education on merit “And we are not doing that. We have elevated [it] almost to a right.” Actually, the word “grant” means “give”. Higher education was intended as a right, for anyone with the brains to benefit.
The Freedom Charter heads that section “The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!” It continues:
Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit.
For all children…Equal…On merit. Read it again, Mr Mantashe. Certainly, the thugs burning libraries are thugs – and clearly not very smart – and need to be called to order (whether they are students or not; that is currently moot, and student movements were ever the haunt of provocateurs). But so do the thugs who make it impossible for libraries to function, by putting the boot in on the real value of state higher education funding .
Maybe we need a bit of neuro-linguistic reprogramming here? Not only is education a right, it is also not an expense, but an investment. It is an investment in social mobility, in social cohesion, in a skilled labour force that can attract more FDI, in innovation, and in democracy and human rights. Last time I looked, those were not only entrenched in the spirit of the Freedom Charter, but allegedly key goals for current policy too.
Fees must fall.