Dolapo Oladiran: Free Education, Is It Really Possible?

In recent years, we have been repeatedly told that education is being commodified and how it is a right and not a privilege. Nordic countries are cited as examples of countries where free education is obtainable and students in South Africa (SA) cannot understand nor accept why this cannot be implemented in their country. Are these students to blame? In a country where there is a high sense of entitlement since the end of the apartheid era and with high level corruption reported in government every day, are their demands not legit for education to be rightly prioritized?

The ruling party, ANC in their freedom charter released in 1955 promised free education to South Africans and even recently in 2013 as part of the communique from the 53rd ANC national conference resolution held in Manguang stated that “the policy for free higher education to all undergraduate level students will be finalized for adoption before the end of 2013”. This is 2016 and nothing of such has been implemented. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in the past days since the students intensified their protests for free education pointed out that free education is an impossible promise and called on the ruling party to re-visit the freedom charter. It is therefore worth mentioning that we are in changing times and what was obtainable years back might be impossible today and in years to come.

The Nordic countries defined education as a civil right, not a private investment nor a commodity. Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and Norway funded their free education policy with tax payers money which some of them soon realized was un-sustainable hence it was abolished by Denmark in 2006, Sweden stopped this policy in 2011 and non-EU students who want to study in English would start paying tuition fee from 2017 in Finland. Iceland and Norway government have also tried to abolish free tuition for international students but were met with stiff opposition from student representative councils who opined that this would sooner or later be extended to local students. The cost of funding higher education is very expensive and government alone cannot bear this cost hence the need to amend policies of free education in these Nordic countries.

A look at the state of public higher education in Nigeria just goes to show that education being highly subsidized by government is not sustainable neither is free education because this will only promote a dip in quality of education provided by these institutions. The state of the residences in public higher institutions of learning in Nigeria are deplorable at best and accessibility to e-journals for research is impossible, equipment are not available for research and so on. This is the situation in many other African countries and this is the edge South African universities has over these countries and this has made it a top destination of study for Africans who want quality and yet affordable education which can be compared to that obtainable in developed countries.

The South African economy narrowly avoided recession in 2016 and providing free education might be impossible for the government to accede to just now. What the government can therefore do is provide loans and scholarships for the poor who genuinely cannot afford the tuition fees. While Merit based scholarships and National students financial aid scheme (NSFAS) loans are available, needs-based scholarship should also be made available by the government for students too poor to assess the NSFAS loan. The master-card scholarship is a good example of a needs-based scholarship as it caters for the poor whose families cannot sponsor their education. Majority of students who get the merit based scholarships are from privileged backgrounds and they will easily oust students from townships who did not receive same quality of secondary education as the privileged children.

There is need for a robust debate around the issue of free education amongst all political parties, private sector and stakeholders in the educational sector so that this project of South African universities competing favorably with universities in developed countries does not disappear in coming years due to inability to reach a consensus able to sustain the project.

Dolapo Oladiran

(PhD Student, University of Pretoria)