Malaika Wa Azania | How free’s free education really?

Mcebo Freedom Dlamini shouts out to fellow protesters at Wits University during a Fees Must Fall protest at the university
Mcebo Freedom Dlamini shouts out to fellow protesters at Wits University during a Fees Must Fall protest at the university
Image: Alon Skuy

Just more than a year ago, former president Jacob Zuma announced that the SA government would be providing free higher education to poor working class students and assisting with the subsidisation of the missing middle.

This middle category refers to students who are not poor enough to get free education, but also not rich enough to fully afford the cost of education.

The news was received with scepticism from many, but for those of us who had been involved in the bruising #FeesMustFall movement, the announcement was truly revolutionary.

After two years of fighting, of enduring the militarisation of our universities and the brutalities meted out on us by a state and institutions with a monopoly of violence, the declaration that we would finally have free education was complete vindication.

Sadly, our euphoria has been short-lived.

In the past two years, students have continued to battle with access.

Every year, thousands of deserving and qualifying students have the door of learning shut in their faces because of lack of funding.

Universities have set dates for the closing of registration, often around the end of January.

However, by this time thousands of students have not been cleared by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which means they’re not able to register unless they can raise the required registration fee.

For most, this is an impossibility.

By the time NSFAS clears these students, it’s already the end of February or March, by which time the students have been kicked out of the system by universities.

As if this is not devastating enough, there is no framework for recourse.

This means that students have no alternative but to stay at home.

Staying at home is akin to submitting an application for being consumed in the dehumanising cycle of generational poverty.

For poor working class students, access to higher education is not a question of prestige.

Education for us is quite literally the key to a better life.

Our families depend on us obtaining qualifications because this would almost guarantee some level of upward mobility.

There is empirical evidence to suggest that obtaining a degree improves one's positionality and, more than that, creates a kind of multiplier effect for one’s immediate family and broader community.

To be denied this education is not only an individual setback, but a delay of the aspirations of a society that is in desperate need of the redressing of injustices of the past that continue to shape our prevailing material conditions.

A friend gives an apt analogy about free education.

On a cool night when the stars are shining bright, he glances up at the sky and says: “Those stars are very beautiful, are they not? But they are also very far, are they not?

“They are much like the free education policy. Very beautiful, but very far."

Indeed, the bureaucratic impediments that confront students seeking to access higher education demonstrate just how far this beautiful dream of free education is from being realised.

At the heart of this problem is that there’s no relationship between the free education policy and NSFAS as an implementing body.

NSFAS is clearly overwhelmed, which explains the delay in clearing students.

But the ANC government, having made a promise to poor students that they can access higher education, has a responsibility to honour this promise.

When it agreed to Zuma's announcement, it understood that this would require fiscal re-orientation and budget reprioritisation.

It also knew that the implementing body, NSFAS, needed more capacity to run the process smoothly.

Poor students should not be punished for the lack of foresight and bureaucratic inefficiencies that now threaten to defer free education.

If this situation is not addressed with the urgency that it requires, we are likely to see a new wave of protests of the magnitude of #FeesMustFall.

The ANC government is backing students into a corner, pitting them against uncompromising higher learning institutions that are, correctly, refusing to extend deadlines for registration.

Universities have a responsibility to provide education and extending deadlines for registration would have terrible consequences for the learning programme.

It’s not the responsibility of universities to shoulder the burden of the government’s incompetency and inefficiency.

To ask them to do so would be unreasonable and unfair.

The government must take responsibility and do right by students, because anything less would be setting parameters for a people’s revolt.

● Malaika Wa Azania is a geographer and masters student at Rhodes University. She is an essayist and the best-selling author of internationally acclaimed ‘Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation’. She is passionate about youth development and social justice. This is her first bi-weekly column.