Originally published in The Times, Monday 12 September

Kayin Scholtz, SAEP Impact Centre Manager

The idea of a free university education resonates with the born free generation, and understandably so – it’s an aspiration that has been denied to so many. Having a university degree has become associated as the minimum standard for those wanting to earna good living, and, more powerfully, has become the signifier of being a respectable person. Yet four out of five SA students will never secure a place at university, and, almost all those not accepted will be poor. But, more often than not, it won’t be only fees which bar their way: the most significant barrier to university education and social mobility is in fact poor quality schooling.

At SAEP (the South African Education and Environment Project) we have found that at schools in the informal settlement of Philippi in the Western Cape, as many as 90% of learners aspire to attend  university and around 70% indicate that they are worried about not being able to afford university fees but, the sad reality is that 80% of these learners will not even achieve the bachelor’s pass necessary to apply for university. And, for those who do, application fees, registration fees, complex application forms and a growing move towards electronic university and funding applications arise as further barriers.

Last year fees protests rocked the country, in large part because the ‘missing middle’ families earning over the means threshold of R122 000per household per annum were too poor for loans and too ‘wealthy’ to receive support from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS); a situation we cannot afford if we intend to educate our youth to grow our country. However, two themes have become needlessly entangled. Firstly, the notion of whether or not increased education funding is possible, and secondly, how this money should be spent.

Fees Must Fall called for fee-free university education and much of the debate since then has revolved around whether this is financially viable. With enough political will, funding university education is possible – albeit not without costs. However until learners from poor families are able to enrol in large numbers, fee-free university education would be largely a cash transfer to the wealthy families whose children currently dominate these institutions.

In our deeply unequal country with severely limited budgets, utopian ideals must be grounded in context. Budgeting requires working with competing social justice priorities. It is far from being as simple as right and wrong. University students, particularly at historically advantaged institutions who have the greater access to voice, will tend to dominate our discourse and funding priorities; at times at the expense of those without this privilege.  Failure to recognise this might lead, as it did in 2016, to a reduced fee burden on wealthy students which was paid for from allocations aimed at skills development funding for unemployed youth.

Where does this leave us? An idea which is hardly revolutionary or even new, is to increase the threshold for the NSFAS means test and models for implementing this have already been trialed. The University of Cape Town’s GAP funding programme provides tiered financial assistance for families who earn up to R500 000 per annum. GAP funding, if implemented nationally through NSFAS, would help to provide tiered support.  Increasing the NSFAS means test threshold would, it seems, ensure that no-one would be excluded from higher education due to their family’s (or their) income.

Of course the NSFAS system is not perfect: administrators are at times corrupted; students can cheat the means test and late payments force students into demeaning situations such as scrounging for food, and, in the most extreme cases, selling their bodies. These are all challenges which, if solved, would help us move towards being a more just country.

Fees protests have forced us to think about the kind of society we wish to create and have helped to highlight challenges which were invisible to many.  Delivering quality, socially just education is imperative, but it develops iteratively and budgeting for this is an exercise in priority setting. Though informed by utopian ideals, it is specific, granular and contextual. In South Africa today, fee-free university education is an issue which predominantly affects those fortunate enough to have had good quality early childhood development, primary and secondary schooling. We cannot have conversations about university budgetary allocations without bearing this in mind.

Kayin Scholtz is the SAEP Impact Centre Manager. To find out more about the centre, visit the Impact Centre page here. SAEP relies solely on donor funding; to make donation, click through here or follow us on Facebook and Twitter to join the conversation.