A year ago, students first mobilised in protest at the South African Government’s lack of commitment to free education for all, and poor acknowledgement of the lived experience of the majority of students at South African universities. Again this year, massive protests have been sparked by the announcement of a capping of fee increases to 0% for the poor and ‘missing middle’ and 8% for students from rich households. These protests demonstrate that the latest policy yet again fails to address the difficulties experienced by students, who either may be unable to afford the (even capped) fees for higher education, or who bear the heavy burden of loan repayment as National Student Financial AID Scheme (NSFAS) students. The People’s Health Movement – South Africa (PHM-SA) calls for free Education for All.
PHM recognises that like health, education is a basic human right. Those who have access to education are more likely to contribute productively to their families and society, and they are more likely to attain healthier lives. Moreover, South Africa’s health crisis demands the accelerated production of health workers. Financial obstacles to the training of those who can aid society by contributing though employment and increased productivity, such as teachers and health care workers, must be removed. PHM stands for education as a public good and not an unaffordable commodity. Financial exclusion only perpetuates social inequality and poverty, an important social determinant of health. Education is critical, in terms of process and content, to the building of a more just and egalitarian society.
A radical change in government policy – and not only in tertiary education, but in the provision of quality basic education – is required. South Africa is an Upper Middle Income country, yet the government’s expenditure on higher education compares unfavourably to most countries around the world. As part of its austerity policy, government is in effect transferring the major responsibility for such underfunding to universities and their students. In several Southern countries, including Brazil, Ethiopia and India, fees for higher education are nominal or do not exist at all. Indeed, a 2012 Ministerial Working Group Report detailed the argument for ‘no fees for the poor’ option and suggested how financing can be arranged differently. Presently, apart from the wastage of talent from ‘financial exclusions’, students who have received loans under the NSFAS are expected to commence repayment of these when earning salaries above a derisory monthly amount of R2500.
We acknowledge that leadership in South Africa needs to steer the economy within the context of a looming global economic crisis, which is not a crisis of shortage but of maldistribution of unprecedented global (and national) wealth. Yet we should not compromise on free quality health services or education for the people. Contrary to the insistence by government and the private sector that free higher education for the majority of students is unaffordable, it is clear that the necessary funds could be found. It has been demonstrated by economists that over at least the past 10 years’ taxation of the highest earners, and of corporations, has been reduced. Simply by bringing taxation rates of higher income South Africans into line with rates that existed in South Africa 10 years ago and closing tax loopholes, which allow High Net Worth individuals and corporations to pay little or no tax, it is likely that more than enough funding could be generated to provide free higher education to the great majority of students. This is but one of many options open to the state to raise the requisite revenue. Clearly the political, social and economic choices informing public expenditure by the state need to be challenged.
PHM-SA is in solidarity with our student comrades and supports their current demands for free education for all. We support the right to protest that is peaceful and without intimidation or coercion from protesters, non-protestors and security re-enforcements.
We condemn the harassment, brutalization and provocation of students by security forces. We support the call for free higher education. To meet the shortfall in higher education funding, we support the radical review of taxation policy and budgetary allocations, with particular focus on corporate tax and tax avoidance, and on the top bracket of income earners. Such a move may alienate a tiny minority but would be a much-needed and cost-effective intervention towards a more equitable and sustainable South Africa. As one of a number of public goods, we demand that our health and education systems be based on solidarity rather than as a commodity subject to markets and piecemeal financial strategies. Public goods are best funded by a tax regime which embodies this principle of solidarity. Free education is important for building social solidarity where all recipients become identified with a commitment to public service and citizenship.
We need both social change and for government to make policy decisions that directly address inequality. The protests and calls for free education represent a step toward a society that is organised in a different way, one that dismantles rather than perpetuates inequality.
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