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Past Editorial : February 2016

February 2016

1443651948496The Free Education Folly in Unequal Society: #FeesMustNotFall4All

Damtew Teferra Ph.D.
Dr. Damtew Teferra is a professor of higher education, the leader of Higher Education and Training Development, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is also the Editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. He may be reached at
teferra@ukzn.ac.za and teferra@bc.edu

In a 2004 Special Issue of the Journal of Higher Education in Africa1, my colleague, Professor Bruce Johnstone, one of the world’s preeminent US scholars on financing higher education, and I, stated that “free” public higher education never was actually free. This account directly contradicts with the emerging aspirations for “free “education and “FeesMustFall” for-all slogans. As appealing as they may be, they are, however, inherently regressive in societies and countries, such as South Africa, where massive social and economic inequities abound.


The Competing Needs

In that article, we stated that, further to defining the African context for any public expenditure is the array of heavily pressing—and competing—public needs, including elementary and secondary education, public health (the HIV pandemic is only part of the problem), and immense public infrastructure needs such as sanitation, water, housing, roads, telecommunications, a social safety net, public safety, among others.

Therefore, every additional public dollar, franc, cedi, shilling or rand spent on higher education is one that cannot be spent on these other urgent needs. This situation constitutes what the economists call the “opportunity cost” of additional resources to higher education, or the effective “cost” of foregoing what those dollars, francs, cedis, shillings or rands could have done if invested in housing, public health, or elementary and secondary education.

Thus, with budgets for higher education in most African countries already at their effective limits, there is little or no way for most African countries to raise additional higher educational revenue by increased taxes or more governmental borrowing. South Africa is no exception: the massive growth of government funding to universities from 9.8 billion rands in 2004/5 to 24.8 billion rands in 2012/13, a whopping 150 percentage growth effectively illustrates this point.


Revenue Diversification

The arguments—and the logic above—drives the familiar prescription of revenue diversification. The diversification is to supplement the increasingly scarce public tax (or borrowing) with revenue either from faculty and institutional entrepreneurship or from cost-sharing—that is, from passing some of the additional costs on to parents, guardians and students, most of whom will presumably reap great benefits, and some of whom (especially the parents) can be expected to pay willingly if they have to, as evidenced by the tuition fees they are already paying for better secondary education or for new private higher educational options.


Free Education in an Unequal Society

Major portion of government revenue is typically generated through taxation—from both the indigent and the affluent. This same revenue generated by the government (and/or borrowed from global financial institutions) is distributed to public institutions, including universities, presumably according to national plan—and its priorities.

In Africa, a hugely disproportionate number of students in the universities come from upper and middle income families. For instance, in an extreme case in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, more than 90 percent of those in higher education come from the highest income quintile. In South Africa, with a much larger middle and upper class population, parallel, but comparable, patterns may be easy to contemplate.

Such inherent inequalities and inequities render the argument for a blanket free education for all, simply unfair—and unjust. There should be no rationale for a barefooted peasant to subsidize the university education of the children of the “well-heeled” who are already enjoying advantaged, and privileged, upbringing and education. It may be a historic blunder for the free education movement to end up inadvertently subsidizing the education of the affluent at the expense of the indigent. A counter response to #FreeEducation4All would probably be #NoBankrollingTheWell-Heeled.

A quixotic slogan as free education for all may make sense in countries, such as for instance Norway and Finland, where the economic stratification is more just and the social safety strands more robust. Similar approaches may also be relevant for countries which are either emerging from a massive national crisis or starting from a scratch.


No “Blanket Amnesty”

It is unfair, socially inequitable, and financially unsustainable to continue placing all of the costs of higher education—which is partaken of disproportionately by the children of the affluent—entirely on the general taxpayer—including the very poor. Parents, at least those who are financially able, and students, at least those who are able to take loans at reasonable rates of interest, should share the rising costs of higher education along with the general taxpayer. These efforts must continue to better measure the ability of families to pay and to allow students to defer their share until after the completion of their studies. [Prof. Johnstone, in his latest piece, which is due to be published in the International Journal of African Higher Education2, provides an excellent analysis and recommendation on loan issues under a heading “Making Student Loans Work in Africa”.]

A “blanket amnesty” must not be granted to the affluent, whose economic state can be at least inferred from such indicators as the occupation of the parents and the secondary school of the prospective student, simply because the perfect means test has not yet been found. Or else the ongoing battle that narrates free education may not only be a futile exercise—but also self-defeating.



To be sure no deserving citizen should be denied university education simply because he or she cannot afford it. And different forms of funding higher education—public, private, business, NGOs, foundations, alumni—must thus be pursued to realize that possibility. Moreover, a more robust means testing, effective loan provision and aggressive loan recovery schemes must be put in place. At the end, it is no brainer that not everyone is cut for university education and individuals have to be realistic in their expectations and governments pragmatic in rendering—and executing—their policies.

In the article earlier mentioned, Johnstone and I concluded that any forms of cost-sharing are not easy solutions, either technically or politically. Consequently, there is no easy or obvious solution and that any “solution” to the financial dilemma of higher education is going to come with heavy opportunity costs and political costs. The current South African political, social and economic climate, further fuelled by massive student movement, may render these costs even costlier—and more treacherous.

1 Journal of Higher Education in Africa is published by CODESRIA.

2 International Journal of African Higher Education is published by the International Network for Higher Education in Africa in association with the Association of African Universities.



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