Between 2015 and 2017, the topic of #FeesMustFall dominated news headlines and conversations around the country. This year, however, the topic of free education and the Fees Must Fall movement appears to have lost momentum. So what does this mean for students?
Towards the end of 2015, we saw student activism explode across South African university campuses. The protests began at the University of the Witwaterstrand and then moved to the University of Cape Town and Rhodes University. The #FeesMustFall movement subsequently spread to many other universities around the country. The protests called for free and affordable education in order to stop the financial exclusion of disadvantaged students. While the protests were successful in halting fee increases for 2016, the protests seemed to have little impact on the Minister of Education (at the time, Blade Nzimande), or any branch of government for that matter.
What does the Budget say?
In December 2017, former president Jacob Zuma announced that he was committed to providing free tertiary education for poor and working-class students. It was widely doubted whether or not this had been agreed in consultation with the national treasury. Consequently, it seemed unlikely that the commitment would come into fruition. The 2018 National Budget, however, seemed to echo the former president’s intentions. In his presentation of the National Budget, Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba stressed that education is one of the top priorities for South Africa. In line with this, the government made a commitment to allocate more than 1 trillion rand towards fee-free education over the next three years.
So how do they plan on achieving this? For starters, 57 billion rand will be spent on tertiary education and training, which is the largest reallocation of resources seen in the budget. This will initially be implemented for first year university and TVET students with a household income below R350 000 per year, with the intention of covering all years of study over the next few years.
Another major change included the conversion of NSFAS loans into bursaries, meaning that students will no longer be required to pay back their tuition fees as of 2018.
Too good to be true?
The budget allocations made for education have been praised for their commitment towards a more accessible and fee-free education system. However, the budget has also been criticized for failing to address the fundamental issues of South Africa’s education system.
Soria Hay, the head of corporate finance at Bravura, commented that “…principles, theory and strategy are important aspects and the 2018 Budget can be applauded for a strategic pointing in the right direction. But details of how to ensure access to higher education and training for the fee-free education recipients, coupled with how best to allocate funds in basic education to guarantee sustained improvement in education, are glaringly absent…”.
As a result of the fee-free education system, 340 000 university students and 420 000 TVET students are anticipated to benefit in the upcoming year. The government plans on including a further 500 000 students by 2030. Tertiary institutions are already near capacity, meaning that issues of exclusion on grounds of access rather than cost could arise. Allocating funds towards students pursuing higher education can only succeed provided that the sufficient infrastructure is in place. This means also allocating funds towards more quality and well-resourced universities, colleges and training institutions.
So what now?
New EFF MP, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, who has been sworn in as of September 2018, has recently put the spotlight back on the #FeesMustFall movement and students. Ndlozi has appealed for criminal charges against student protesters to be dropped as well as expulsions to be withdrawn. It is estimated that the total damages from Fees Must Fall protests totals almost R600 million. Ndlozi also called for student protestors to stop being criminalized, saying that “they are freedom fighters, simply seeking the attainment of economic freedom in their lifetime.”
Ndlozi wants to reframe the narrative of the Fees Must Fall protests. The student protesters are not criminals and are not in the wrong, yet the blame has fallen upon them. The blame must be directed at the Members of Parliament who have failed the students.
South Africa has a legacy of celebrating freedom fighters, so why should student activists be punished for fighting for their right to education and economic freedom?