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Be Careful What You Promise

By Carol Butcher – 

Be careful what you promise may be one of the greatest lessons learnt from the #FeesMustFall Campaign.

University students are holding the ANC to its 1994 promise of free education. Over twenty years has passed since the ANC made this promise, and students are now demanding that government deliver on this promise; they are also demanding that government deliver on its 1994 promise of a better life for all.

Winnie Madikezela-Mandela recently made a very interesting comment: “How did we think we were going to get money to fund education and that we were going to have free education from the onset? It was an impossible promise but of course we made it from a lack of experience.”

Very few countries worldwide offer free tertiary education. Countries that do so include Finland, Norway, Germany, Greece, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Scotland, Trinidad and Tobago. Interestingly enough, only one of the world’s ten richest countries, based on Global Finance Magazine’s 2015 ratings does so – Norway, ranked 6th. Other countries in the “top ten” club – Qatar, Luxembourg, Singapore, Brunel Darussalam, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, United States and Switzerland do not.

Greece is ranked 44th, Argentina 56th, South Africa 87th, Kenya 145th, Uganda 167th and Mozambique 179th on the list of 185 countries.

Some countries in Africa have dabbled with free university education including Mozambique, Kenya and Uganda; this has not been a resounding success. Free education proved unaffordable in Kenya and Kenya has since introduced a dual-track tuition approach, with students who are subsidised by the state, and others, who pay market-related fees. Free university education has also proved unaffordable in Uganda. Government offers around 4 000 University scholarships every year – everyone else pays their own way. Mozambique also offers some scholarships; however, university places are limited.

A number of much wealthier countries than South Africa – China, Australia and England have abandoned free university education and have implemented cost-sharing models. This begs the question – if these countries cannot afford to offer free university education for all can South Africa realistically expect to do so?

During the past week government has stated that it will pay fees and fee increases for the poor and the working class who qualify for NSFAS scheme; it has also allocated R8bn to pay fee increases for the missing middle – students who come from families with an income of up to R600 000 per annum. But is this enough, or is it too little too late? Will close to one million students at 26 universities accept that free education for all is unaffordable?

Last week was a very bad week – we continued to see acts of arson, including the setting ablaze of a Rea Vaya bus, the stoning of motorists and the intimidation of students, who wanted to return to class. There is no sense that the concessions that have been made will end the campaign.

Government and politicians should never lose sight of the fact that the youth are going to be kingmakers in the next national election. History has shown that electoral promises have a great deal of sway and that the electorate has a very good memory. Will university students and the youth in general be satisfied with the concessions that have been made, or will they see these as mere crumbs? Will they see any wisdom in Winnie Madikezela-Mandela’s words, or will they demand more?

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