The State must assume the cost of higher education

11-10-21 USAf 0 comment

It is the State’s mandate to finance higher education.

This was the view of Mr Phumelelani Mshumi, President of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of the Western Cape, when addressing delegates at the 2nd Universities South Africa (USAf) Higher Education Conference, last week. The conference, themed The Engaged University, was jointly hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE).

Mshumi’s views were in sharp contrast to those of co-speakers in the session dedicated to Sustainable University Funding in an Unequal Society.

Session chair Professor Yunus Ballim, of the University of the Witwatersrand, had stated that “National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), for me, is a funder of last resort.”

Mshumi (left) said he did not share this sentiment: “It must be the primary resource for students who want to come to universities but can’t because of financial implications. There should be no private intervention in the sector as a whole.

Universities, he said, must never be fully autonomous as it relates to funding, stating that:

  • The funding of universities cannot depend on involvement with the private sector. (“Those who fund you control the pace and form of your development.”)
  • Universities are academic spaces that must not be turned into corporate businesses.
  • There must be increased government spending.

Education is free. Freedom of education shall be enjoyed under the condition fixed by law and under the supreme control of the state” – Karl Marx, Das Kapital, as referenced in the presentation by Phumelelani Mshumi

Explained Mshumi: “Supreme control, as referred to by Karl Marx, means the complete funding of the university by the state. However, (in South Africa) the state is not fulfilling the critical role it needs to play for the realisation of its mandate.

“An interpretation of the Marx quote means that the state can change the law of the land. The oligarchs of the banking and mining sector can be compelled, by law, to give funding to universities. It’s just a pity that it’s not being done.”

He acknowledged that the issue of funding is complex in a country with increasing public debt and a shrinking economy made worse by corruption.

“But,” he emphasised, “we must never run away from the question of neoliberal policies that have put us where we are as a country. The neoliberal policy approaches pursued by the ruling party have worsened the condition of the poor and working class. CoViD-19 has only highlighted the structural inequality underlined by racist, sexist and class contradictions; the economic apartheid that burdens us today has impacted the higher learning sector.

The education of all children, from the moment that they can get along without a mother’s care, shall be in state institutions.” – Karl Marx, as referenced in the presentation by Phumelelani Mshumi

“Children of domestic workers, gardeners, teachers, petrol attendants and other working class and unemployed people find themselves in unfavourable circumstances. There is a growing demand for higher education but the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) is not prepared to grow the sector in order to accommodate us.”

He focused on three key points:

  • The relationship between the state and universities.
  • Government participation in funding universities.
  • What needs to be done from a student perspective.

“The student funding conceptualisation includes scholarships and other private donors. But it is more clearly underpinned by the NSFAS. There’s a high level of uncertainty created by the government in the funding of universities which is entirely at its discretion. Funding can just decrease. That causes aggravation for a lot of us here on the ground.

“For example, (some) students haven’t been paid by NSFAS for tuition and a living allowance since last year. This creates an historic debt for the students. It also forces universities to look for third party income. But getting a small share of money from the neoliberal economy is unsustainable.”

In Mshumi’s view, universities must forever be bound to government and not to private institutions or donors with regards to funding.

NSFAS’s administration, he says, is also a problem.

“It is a tool used as a political distraction to the students of this country. The most incompetent and dysfunctional body of the sector is NSFAS. It does not have the administration might to deal decisively and effectively with administrating benefits to students and payments are not processed in time. Some qualifications will now also not be funded by NSFAS – they first denied it but later admitted it was a reality.”

He focused on central issues facing students:

  • Historical debt.
  • The so-called ‘missing middle’ (Students who come from working class households who do not qualify for NSFAS but at the same time, cannot afford higher education).
  • The uncoordinated discontinuation of funding of certain qualifications.
  • The illogical NSFAS appeals process.

“From a student perspective, there must come a point where USAf joins both the university leadership and students to confront the unsustainable allocation of funds to universities. The need for the NSFAS grant is increasing annually and the looming crisis that will be faced by being unable to fund those coming into the system will force another Fees Must Fall,” he said.

According to Mshumi: “Apartheid could fund free education for white universities, why can’t a black government?”

Mshumi was adding a student’s perspective to the Conference deliberations on Sustainable University Funding In An Unequal Society — one of key focus areas of USAf’s Funding Strategy Group (FSG). He spoke alongside Dr Thandi Lewin, Acting Deputy Director General: Universities Branch in the Department of Higher Education and Training, who presented Government’s standpoint on universities funding. Professor Gerald Ouma, Senior Director: Institutional Planning at the University of Pretoria and Mr Hardy Maritz, Director: Group Finance at the University of Cape Town, spoke on universities’ funding crisis. Ouma and Maritz are both members of USAf’s FSG. Two other priority issues of the FSG that received dedicated attention during last week’s conference were Funding for Infrastructure Development and University Shared Services: Drivers, Benefits, Success Factors and Challenges. The FSG, alongside USAf’s four other strategy groups, conceptualised the agenda of this conference in line with the Groups’ priorities stipulated in USAf’s current five-year strategy.

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.