Editorial: Fees conundrum not easy to solve

The national student anger over payment of fees is festering and although the Fees Commission started its public hearings at Wits University this week, there is little sign of a quick or happy resolution.

Some of the sharpest minds in the country have been applying themselves to the conundrum of whether South Africa can provide free tertiary education and, if this is feasible, who will foot the bill.

However, the commission’s report will only be presented to the president next year in March and the students are demanding answers by next month.

Lest one dismisses the #FeesMustFall movement as a bunch of noisy disrupters with a catchy hashtag, consider that the protesting group is articulate, fired up with youthful vigour and a keen sense of injustice.

However, one of its gripes, namely that a university vice-chancellor earns more than 30 times the pay of a cleaner, could just as well apply to hundreds, more likely thousands, of salary structures at private and government institutions.

In effect, they want to slash the salaries not only of university management but also of senior state employees and heads of private companies so that funds can be diverted to fund free higher education. How practical is this?

Student numbers are up, but payment of fees and state subsidies are down. You don’t need matric maths to realise this equation cannot balance.

We can agree with the student demand for an end to corruption, but other demands are clearly unrealistic.

Perhaps they have yet to learn that few things in life are free and why should education – one of the greatest treasures in any achieving country – be exempt?

It may not be fair, but someone has to pay.

Ironically, the pressure our higher education system faces is also in part a measure of its success since liberation: universities today have twice the number of students they had in 1994 and the demographics of those enrolled reflect more closely those of this country.

However, and again it is a uniquely South African problem, those who now are able to enrol are more than ever before less able to pay – and yet are asked to pay disproportionately more.

It may indeed be a recipe for revolution.

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