Jonathan Jansen, former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, dissects the ’no-fees’ rhetoric and outlines ways to resolve the crisis facing SA universities.

WHAT IT MEANS: Free  education for all will deepen SA’s extreme social inequality. State must restore tech education; not call for more university students

Let’s begin with a correction to the protester rhetoric: there is no such thing as free education. Somebody always pays. The notion that "government must pay" is itself misleading. Officials redeploy other people’s money, the taxpayers’ money, to pay for social goods like education.

Nor do students in schools and universities not pay. No matter how much government might put into university fees, students and their families always pay, even if the basic needs — tuition, accommodation and books — are covered by outside agencies. Poor students have to find money for transportation, field trips, laboratory materials and basic living needs, from soap to sanitary pads and toothpaste. And then, of course, a decision to go to university means income deferred, even if that was in low-paying jobs. Education is never free.

Poor students have a point. Those who qualify for higher education as a result of good academic high school marks have a reasonable expectation that they could pursue a higher degree and find well-paid employment on graduation.

They might not have seen the data showing that SA has one of the highest private rates of return to education [meaning university graduates on the whole do very well in life], but aspirant university students know that a degree means the difference between abject poverty and economic well-being for the family. This is a basic position that every South African must support; there must be free education for poor students.

What must not be allowed is for middle-class and wealthy students to benefit from free education. There is ample evidence that a blanket policy of free education will in fact deepen inequalities in a country with the highest income inequality in the world.

Nor can SA afford such a generous version of free education; only those with blinkers on will be unconscious of the fact that the economy is not growing and that all sectors, not only education, are under strain.

Then there is the oddity that students pay much more for private (and in some cases, public) education at schools than they could possibly pay at university. This is wrong and we need the middle classes in public universities for two reasons — they cross-subsidise the education of the poor and enrich the social, cultural and intellectual diversity required in post-apartheid universities.

Government could rightly argue, however, that its funding of higher education through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has increased by billions in recent years and that this amounts to a generous, pro-poor policy. That is correct.

There are, however, three problems with NSFAS. One, there is the problem of adequacy, where the number of students in public universities has exploded from 400,000 to more than 1.2m, and unlike before, most of these are poor. There is simply not enough money to cover this level of need across the 26 public universities.

Two, there is the problem of efficiency. In a system where less than a third of entering students will graduate on time and half will drop out, this is money down the drain. A highly inefficient system such as this means the money invested in youth is not re-circulated back into the universities to sustain the public funding of students in need.

And three, there is the problem of sufficiency, in that for poor students much more funding is needed than basic fees, for those from destitute families are often first- generation students who bring nothing to university other than their talents.

What breaks the camel’s back is that additional funding is needed simply to survive, in a social system where students not only receive little financial support from family but are expected to repatriate whatever money they do have to support siblings at home. This is a problem that has faced poor university students over generations.

These limitations of the funding system point the finger at a serious structural problem that has not been addressed. For some time this problem has been identified as the "inverted pyramid" where there are many more students in university than in technical and vocational education programmes.

This single-minded focus on universities as places of high status is costing us dearly.

Instead of using limited funding to expand the system of high-quality training programmes for technicians, plumbers, electricians and hospitality managers, government committed one of those vain and costly mistakes: it built two more universities with slightly more than 1,000 students which, given the investment in building these institutions, are tangible examples of gross inefficiency.

But how does the state create training colleges that attract students away from universities? It is difficult, given that apartheid cemented in the minds of black South Africans the wrong-headed idea that working with your hands (which is not the case with high-quality training in colleges) is inferior to working with your head (which is inaccurate in high-quality professional education at universities). Nonetheless, by racialising curricular options — which Hendrik Verwoerd infamously announced as a matter of policy, as a forced choice between academic education for whites and vocational education for blacks — this issue became deeply ingrained in the black psyche and will not easily disappear.

But what the state could do to restore the status of technical training colleges is to heavily endow these institutions with the best technical teachers and trainers, even if we have to recruit them from outside our borders, from countries like Germany. Then invest in the latest and most modern equipment available for specific vocations. And ensure that every technical college student gets a good job on graduation. Those simple things, advertised and marketed well, will swing public sentiment and graduate choices in favour of technical education.

But government can do more. It should stop putting pressure on universities to increase their numbers against pre-set targets, with funding tied to compliance with those enrolment agreements.

It is not working and it has now proven to enable the kind of political strife on campuses where there are too many academic students for too little public money.

It is also important to set the standard high for university admissions to ensure that only students who can master an academic education qualify for degree studies, and to create alternative paths to meaningful qualifications in technical training colleges.

Planning, a neglected discipline in government departments of education, can then work steadily towards reversing the reality of the inverted pyramid so that universities have fewer and better-qualified students who pass in the minimum time, and technical training colleges carry the majority of post-secondary students. Regardless of these structural reforms, the new system works only in an economy that grows.

What to do with the immediate situation? The crisis is no longer about fees and certainly not about the quantum of the fee increases. Its origins, history will show, lay in a dangerous decision President Jacob Zuma made when, in late 2015, under huge political pressure with students massing beneath the Union Buildings, he overrode his minister of higher education & training and announced there would be no fee increase for 2016, displacing the minister’s proposed 6%.

The minister had been in touch with the vice-chancellors; he knew the enormous risk that came with no fee increase to the sustainability of institutions already buckling under the annual dilution of state transfers to universities.

The president, not one familiar with higher education in any sense, treated these fragile institutions in the same way he might handle the parastatals; just bail them out.

But there was no money, or at least very little, in government coffers, and so once the 0% announcement had been made, department officials started to call vice-chancellors to ask what they would contribute, in millions, to make up the 6% gap. Whatever diminishing reserves some universities might have had, for emergencies, were now whittled away.

But that was not the real damage.

In making that announcement the president had conveyed the impression that there was money, after all, to meet student needs. He also confirmed causality reasoning on the part of the protesters — make enough noise, cause sufficient disruption, and resort to violent attacks on public property, and eventually government pays attention and finds the money. Except, there is no money and what the president did not realise, let alone communicate to the protesters, was that these demands had an impact on recurrent expenditures — you needed that kind of financial bailout year after year to keep universities afloat.

Yet in the political psychology of the students, a line had been drawn — there would never again be a fee increase. Since then, the goalposts shifted; it is no longer about fee increases, it is about free higher education.

Since this awareness of the new political game dawned on university managers, desperately trying to keep the academic year open since most students did not support open-ended disruption (at Wits, 77% of students voted for staying open), these executives were in a political fix for one simple reason — resolution of the crisis lay in Pretoria, not on their campuses.

But for the militant minority the line of logic was simple: put the pressure on these university managers, who in any event are simply bureaucratic extensions of the state, and in this way you put the pressure on government. One way to keep university managers on the run was to keep shifting the goalposts in the list of demands; as soon as some were met, others were added. Intense negotiations would be entered into, sometimes over weekends, only to have students back out after exhausting hours of talks between senior managers and changing faces of a leaderless student movement. University managers would come to realise they were being played.

So what are government’s options?

There is no financial capital for free public higher education, and the only thing that government could reasonably do is to use its political capital to bring warring parties, whether these be students or their political principals off-campus, into a veritable ceasefire to save the academic year. That is the solution, a political settlement with the small but increasingly violent minority spreading mayhem across campuses.

Only the ruling party can do that, but there is a problem — it lacks political legitimacy to effectively deal with the militant minority. The relentless media stories of corruption in government, combined with unbelievable displays of impunity by those in power — from the head of the SABC to the president of the country — have effectively diminished the moral authority of political leaders among citizens in general and with protesting students in particular.

If government leaders can defy their own institutions, such as the public protector, and defy the courts, why should others, including students, play by the rules of the democratic game?

What does all of this mean for the resolution of the immediate crisis?

There are only two immediate options. Either government declares free public education into the future, setting off what will be a major financial crisis for the country; or it pushes back and uses the full power of the state to end the violence and disruptions of the university by dealing with the militant minority. (More than one commentator has referred to the desire among some students in the militant minority for their own "Marikana".)

Both these options should be avoided at all costs, especially any form of violence against students.

A more likely scenario is that government does nothing. It leaves the resolution of the crisis to university leaders while making minor concessions such as expanding the welfare net for inclusion in fee-free education. The militant minority will not accept this, of course, and running battles on the campuses will continue.

The consequences of these never-ending, pitched clashes between university managers and militant students are familiar to universities to the north of SA, where there is no political resolution to funding crises on campuses. Anyone with doubts about our likely direction for the public universities needs to read books by colleagues in other African universities, such as Mbwette and Ishumi’s eye-opening publication Managing University Crises (DUP, University of Dar es Salaam, 2000). Let me, with this book in mind, summarise our likely future.

Universities in post-independent Africa self-destruct as a result of three major forces. One: a steady decline in government funding. This is the well-narrated story of the past few months, that every year universities receive less state subsidy in real terms than before (see second graph).

Since SA does not have many large corporations, foundations and wealthy families that endow their top universities, the leaders of our public students turned to the only other reliable and available source of revenue, student fees; third-stream income is erratic and hardly exists for the poorer universities. Without substantial and reliable state funding, a university cannot hire the top professors, fund innovation, pursue international research partnerships and generally build a strong academic platform.

Two: creeping state interference in the business of universities. More and more, government has questioned the autonomy of universities in relation to everything from how official funding is managed to the pace of transformation to how many ministerially appointed officials sit on councils, the governing authority of higher education institutions. And so transformation targets are set, additional funding restrictions are imposed, enrolment targets are set, student applications are centrally controlled and fee increases (the 0% decision) are announced.

Under the mistaken ideological position that government can do a better job of managing certain public functions which it funds — universities are no different from Eskom and the SABC, in this reasoning — interference has become routine and will no doubt expand as frustration at institutional capacity to "deliver" on educational outcomes grows.

And three: chronic instability. What we have seen since February 2015, and escalating in the months following October of that year, is the spread of increasingly violent protests.

These have now made the university teaching calendar as unpredictable as the school calendar in the poorest and union-controlled regions of SA. It is not only that the protests have become seriously violent, already claiming one life and with damage running towards R1bn; it is also the fact that these violent acts are now routinely justified as necessary and retaliatory violence not only by militant students but, believe it or not, by some academics in the former white universities.

What happens to public universities when these three forces — underfunding, state interference and instability — act in concert? The evidence from the African experience is consistent from east to west and north to south on our continent, and let me mention only three effects.

The students who can afford to pay, leave. Not a day goes by without parents, black and white, contacting me to ask whether they should educate their children at SA universities or send them abroad for studies. Parents send their children to university for two reasons — a top-quality education, and safety and security. Both of those former certainties are under threat and there seems to be no solution in sight.

When a university loses four weeks to militant student protests, with fellow students intimidated and dragged out of classes, a parent with options leaves. This, as indicated, is to the detriment of our public universities. And since SA has strict controls over the establishment of private higher education on home soil, most of these fleeing students will study overseas.

The professors who can afford to leave take jobs outside the country. Every week I am asked to write a reference for top-rated academics with multiple job offers from Australia, New Zealand, any number of countries in Europe, and Canada and the US. These are persons with A, B and upper C ratings from the National Research Foundation and whose academic capital make them prime recruits across the world.

What top scholars want from a university, more than anything else, is an environment of relative calm in which they can pursue their research, teach their students and make a contribution to society without constant harassment and the brooding uncertainty of the current environment. When top professors leave, in numbers, the academy is even further juniorised and the big losers are the masses of students deprived of the best academic teachers.

The academic facility begins to collapse. Here I refer to the ability to replenish library stock and renew critical journals against a weak rand; the maintenance of buildings is postponed until the costs of restoration become prohibitively high; the equipment in laboratories and the software on computers become out of date; and the trust of donors in the university as a promising investment begins to dry up. When students cannot or refuse to pay, and workers are insourced on the spot (a just act), but you have no money even as you still are required to pay the increasing costs of electricity, property taxes, staff salaries and increases, and interest on loans for student accommodation (to mention but a few fixed obligations) something has to give, and it will show in the vitality of the property portfolio of a public university.

Does the militant minority care that they are in the process of destroying the top academic institutions still left on the continent? Frighteningly, no. The logic of the militant minority is that unless everybody can get free education right now, then nobody should, and if that means razing universities to the ground, so be it.

What was built up over a century could very well be laid waste in a matter of two to three years.

If government, led by the ANC, does not act now, there is only one other way to stop this train crash and that is a broad, assertive and immediate public action that supports free education for the poor but stands up to the militant minority and does not allow them to destroy this vital but fragile institution called the public university.

Otherwise, we have no reason to complain when our autonomous public universities begin to resemble our government-controlled public entities.