Who owns the Crises Rocking South Africa’s Tertiary Education?

Living in a country where only 7% of the population are graduates, it is embarrassing for a government to admit that they cannot help further educate and empower the rest of the population.

When a product is increasingly inaccessible and expensive, there is less interest to invest in it. Is education worth divesting from because it is too expensive? When most South Africans think of education, it often means escaping generational poverty and hardship. Education needs to engage with other aspects that make a society functional, and that includes the workforce. Eradicating the current student debt is simply applying a band-aid over the systemic economic issues plaguing South Africa. An educated population is redundant in an economy that doesn’t support and develop these skills.

Student protestors are demanding R10 billion to eradicate historical student debt. However, the higher education Minister Blade Ndzimande stated that the department “is not in a financial position to clear debt”. Eradicating the student debt does not undo the structural issues facing South Africa currently, and doing so would only prolong the student debt crisis.

There needs to be a greater prioritisation for how knowledge is integrated into the work force and greater society. Innovation drives progress; the issue in South Africa is that skills and education are not being adequately matched. According to StastsSA 55% of youth with matric level education only are unemployed; 32% of youth graduates also being unemployed. This showcases a disconnect from the assumption that higher education guarantees job security. South Africa is at a point where there is not much of a distinction between being ‘qualified’ or not. The fundamental issue is whether there are institutions and a workforce that can effectively absorb and integrate individuals, and currently the system is failing.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The current system – with the added-on government restrictions on business conduct, additionally with all kinds of taxes –  will continue to fail young people such as myself.[/perfectpullquote]

The promise of alleviating poverty and hardship through education is not true in modern day South Africa.The limitations of having massive access to labour with little innovation and integration, is seen in the country’s failing SOE’s. Eskom is one of the country’s largest employers, with R450 billion debt, whilst maintaining 66% too many employees that are overpaid according to the World Bank. Whereas SAA also boasts a debt of R57 billion and the Road Accident Fund is expected to have a deficit of R600 billion by 2023. These figures show the deeper issue regarding the prioritisation of government regarding labour. These entities had access to 32% of educated young graduates and still failed to innovate and rather maintaining failed SOE’s.

Education is a pathway which is supposed to empower individuals and their skills to create better lives for themselves and their families and communities. Based on these statistics, one can see that the current pathway is not effective. For other countries a young population means more people to drive change and innovation, whereas in South Africa, access to young labour and potential skills is burdensome. One could point to Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETA’s) and Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET’s) as efforts made to drive that connection between labour, skills and innovation. Many businesses, especially micro businesses which make up 66% of total businesses, are often unable to access much needed young fresh skills. And access to these skills translates into greater innovation that would feed into broader South Africa.

Education should be accessible and cheaper. A major controversy is that the government is able to constantly bankroll SOE’s like SAA, that just received another bail-out of R10,5 billion, while unable to eradicate the total debt of students which is estimated at R10 billion. The actual issue here is not whether or not to eradicate this debt, but how South Africa has reached a point where the mismanagement of resources on failing institutions is normalised.

There are a few means to help eliminate this debt crisis. Currently, universities face very little accountability and scrutiny. This is shocking considering that government subsidies for this year are R47.5 billion and universities receive subsidies ranging R647 000 to R21 000 per year. This includes start-up and specialist institutions; this money could have easily cleared the total student debt four times over. Where is this money going considering that most 3 year fulltime degrees take 6 years to complete and graduate unemployment is 32%. Another surprising statistic is that 1 million students are enrolled every year while only 150 000 graduate. The money that the government currently provides is guaranteed and does not force tertiary institutions to meet performance requirements such as employment. The fact that this subsidy is not more transparent is concerning and no outcome requirements for access, is troubling as this is taxpayer money which is not doing its job.

The best approach currently, given that South Africa is a developing country and has limited resources, is to make debt repayment easier. You can’t pay back debt if you don’t have the income to do so. I would suggest that this current system creates an over reliance on the state to constantly intervene and guarantee money to universities. Placing the responsibility of tertiary education on an ever-inefficient state will not produce quality education outcomes for anyone. What should happen is that universities should not rely on government funding as their main source of income, they should provide quality degrees that are employable and don’t result in 32% of graduates being unemployed. State subsidies should be reduced and only awarded based on outcome.

This would force greater competition amongst schools to entice students and is a means of reducing the debt crisis as more graduates can earn an income. I think that #feesmustfall cannot be contained to increased access to education but accessing a greater environment that can facilitate and embrace that access to education. The current system – with the added-on government restrictions on business conduct, additionally with all kinds of taxes –  will continue to fail young people such as myself.

Mukundi Budeli is a BA(Law) student at the University of Witwatersrand. She is a legal associate at the Free Market Foundation.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.