I believe that free education for all is a worthy aspiration and should be pursued as it would catapult our country into a new era. In its pre-1994 manifesto, the ANC promised free education, only to find that it is not affordable. The best that it has been able to manage is to provide for the children of poor families, and this is a significant step in the right direction.
At present, the government is being held to ransom by some (and it is unlikely to be the majority of) university students who, regrettably, are unable to see the bigger picture. Considering that these are our leaders of the future, one might have expected more. Such as, for example, university is not the only option for post-school people, and, indeed, should not even be the most popular option. At present, government is not able to provide universal funding for grade R, which is part of the compulsory phase of basic education and the very foundation on which the matric pass rate depends. Such as, for example, that in a well-ordered state, expenditure is not based on whim, but is managed in three-year medium term expenditure frameworks which, rightly or wrongly, determine priorities. Money available to the State does not grow on trees, but is paid by tax payers who, incidentally (in terms of PAYE tax), constitute just 13% of our population. For all that there may be criticism of some government expenditure which is clearly profligate and unrelated to real priorities, the demand on state finances is ever-increasing with health, infrastructure and municipalities, and, indeed, universities and TEVT colleges all being chronically under-funded.
Here are some other aspects of the bigger picture. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme was owed R15,6 billion in 2013, this being the amount owed by people who had received loans and were liable to repay them, but did not do so. Nor was there a successful recovery mechanism. The graduation rate (in the expected time period) in South African universities in 2013 stood at 15%, while even at the level of masters and doctorates it was 20% and 12% respectively. As I write, there is the wide expression of concern that our universities are imbued with a rape culture. The campaign for universities to insource, in contradiction of previous government urges to outsource, non-academic services, has increased costs in the face of annually declining government subsidies. Are these factors part of the decolonization agenda, I wonder?
I have learnt that government funding of TVET (formerly FET) Colleges has been cut by more than 50% for the ensuing financial year, an iniquity which flies in the face of recent government policy which has been to recapitalize and strengthen the college sector, where artisan and other skills are taught. This is to enable the ransom to be paid. It means that while university students will enjoy the freedom of some, if not all, fee-paying, those that wish to learn the occupational skills will find an emasculated sector in which more will have to pay in full. This defies understanding.
I regard some of the protesters as anarchists and cannot, for any cause, accept violence and damage to property. I am conscious that this, like any other protest in South Africa, is manna from heaven for political opportunists. A moral high ground is being claimed, but there comes a point in any campaign when the cause is made subservient to the maintenance of the campaign itself which feeds egos and opportunism.