South Africa’s #feesmustfall protests: some inconvenient truths

South Africa’s student protests are raising difficult issues, some of which are not being debated openly. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

There are a number of inconvenient truths about South Africa’s ongoing #FeesMustFall protests that remain under-stated, or at worst unstated.

High on the under-stated list is the fact that freezing fees, or abolishing them, will make the current higher education system benefit richer South Africans even more than it already does. This has been pointed out and has previously been acknowledged by the government. Tied to this is the fact that, despite statements to the contrary, the country’s poor are not the real priority of the student movement.

There are two further issues that have received little attention. The first is that the majority of young South Africans are being failed by the government and society at large. This begins long before they reach university. The second is that when commenting on how much the government spends on higher education there is too much reliance on “percentage of GDP” as an economic metric, when it is actually nonsensical as a basis for allocating public finances.

It’s time to face these inconvenient truths head on.

Failing the young

Most young South Africans are failed by society and the education system. Schooling outcomes are bad. The prospects of decent – or any – employment are dire and have become worse. Cramming students into universities makes it look as though the government is delivering for young people and that prospects are better than they really are.

Recent protests are partly a consequence of selling false hope. After 1994 one of the government’s priorities has been to remedy historical injustice through increasing access to universities by groups that were previously excluded or marginalised. As a result universities have been under tremendous pressure to admit more students.

Between 1995 and 2014 the number of first-time undergraduates entering South Africa’s universities per year grew from 64,000 (excluding North West University due to unavailable data) to 158,000. The total number of students enrolled increased from 380,000 to 980,000.

Universities have been ill-prepared. Students that are being admitted have not arguably been adequately prepared by the basic education system. In addition the general view among researchers is that funding for universities has not kept-up with student numbers – although this has recently been questioned. And funding for financially needy students has not increased as fast as the increase in their numbers.

The result is that a great many students are struggling. This is evident in high drop out and repetition rates. Nearly a third (29%) of students have dropped out of the system entirely after five years. Only 37% completed their undergraduate degree within four years, increasing to 58% after six years. The obvious question is: should South Africa restrain growth in student numbers?

Politicians, bureaucrats and university managers know that a significant number of students in the system should not be there on academic merit, and that funding is insufficient. But no-one wants to suffer the political or social consequences of saying so.

Poor youth are not the priority

The rhetoric around #FeesMustFall typically concerns the exclusion and hardship of the least privileged. But this is at odds with students’ demands.

The vast majority of poor young people do not access universities. This is first-and-foremost because their schooling outcomes do not satisfy (low) official entrance requirements. The result is that most students come from households that are significantly richer than the South African average.

This is why spending more money on students attending higher education is not the same as helping poor students, or poor young people in general. A recent study on the equity impact of government spending showed that higher education was one of the least progressive forms of social expenditure.

The issue is further muddled by the fact that sloppy, rhetorical use of the term “poor” obscures the limited benefits of proposed policy changes for poor students. For instance, most proposed solutions to the current stand-off involve raising the household income threshold used to assess eligibility for financial aid.

But the threshold used is already well above the poverty lines proposed by various researchers. It may well be the case that there is already enough money to provide free higher education to the poor, if only funding was given first to those who actually qualify as poor.

For poor students the problem is not the threshold, but whether they get allocated enough (or any) funds. Though not set out explicitly, the way the aid scheme works in practice is that it does not prioritise qualifying students by income. As things stand, a student whose annual household income is R20,000 gets no more priority than one whose household income is R122,000.

The Department of Higher Education and Training has considered increasing the threshold, and FeesMustFall has proposed a much higher threshold for “low income students”. But unless there’s a change in the way in which financial aid is allocated, higher thresholds could create even greater unfairness for the poorest students.

Percentage of GDP is a mindless metric

One of the few claims that carries broad consensus is that higher education in South Africa is underfunded because government expenditure on higher education relative to GDP is low compared to other countries. This claim has appeared in critical reports such as in Chapter 9 of the 2012 National Development Plan and the 2013 Ministerial Committee Review on funding of universities.

Unfortunately, it is wrongheaded.

Criticism of the over-reliance on this metric precedes FeesMustFall. I provided a critique in an analysis of basic education expenditure in 2013. And raised related concerns when advising Parliament committees on comparisons of South Africa’s tax to GDP ratio to other countries.

The problem is that simplistic comparisons across countries fail to account for a variety of important local factors. In higher education these include the proportion of the population who are young, different structures of higher education funding systems, different forms of post-school education and the quality of basic education.

To illustrate the point about the funding system, consider the fact that university fee income is not included in the total expenditure number (and therefore is not reflected in the percentage). This is because it is not government expenditure. If government scrapped fees, raised the same amount through taxes and gave this back to universities, “government expenditure on higher education” would rise significantly but the resources available to the system would be the same.

Inequality won’t budge

Financial need should not be an obstacle to students who qualify to enter university at a suitable academic standard. But in allocating public finances it is critical to recognise that even carefully designed changes in funding will not materially reduce inequality in society as a whole. Based on my calculations using the most recent Statistics South Africa Quarterly Labour Force Survey 30.5% of 15 to 34-year-olds are unemployed and only 3.5% are in university education. Removing university fees is not the best way to help South Africa’s young people who are poor.