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Inequity in higher education is a price too high to pay

Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi is the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of University (UJ).

He recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 08 March 2023.

More than seven years after the #FeesMustFall protests, embers of the students’ movement for access to quality education still burn on university grounds and beyond.

The protests began in Johannesburg in mid-October 2015 and spread to many parts of South Africa, with placards reading “education is not a privilege” and “freedom includes education”. Against a dire economic backdrop, the desperate cry for access to education and funding reverberated through parliament and the Union Buildings.

Reflecting on this moment, Professor Susan Booysen said in the introduction of her book, Fees Must Fall: Student Revolt, Decolonisation and Governance in South Africa: “[The movement] unleashed social and political power that challenged the established political order, brought university managements to heel, and changed the social fabric of universities and of parts of society. Foundational values were to be reconsidered, and their ideological bases laid bare and cast off; policies were changed, and institutions transformed – and the power of direct action to get radical results was affirmed.”

We are eight years on from that moment but problems still persist. South Africa is still considered the most unequal country in the world. This is a title we have held for a number of years, according to the World Bank. In the higher education sector, the gulf is wider, and the divisions are stark. Narrowing the gap between those who have access to universities and those who do not seems to have been relegated to the background.

Then, there are the divisions between students — those who are state-funded, those who are self-funded and those who make up the “missing middle”.

According to the World Economic Forum, education has historically been the shortest bridge between the haves and the have-nots, bringing progress and prosperity for both individuals and countries.

The #FeesMustFall protests demonstrated the burden of higher education in South Africa — a concept institutions contend with annually. Although there are interventions in the form of scholarships, government funding through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and initiatives by individual institutions of higher learning such as that at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), there are many students who fall through the cracks.

Higher education is still in crisis. Auditing firm PwC estimated that the cost of delivering university education is about R50 billion annually. State contributions have declined while the burden on students has increased with the increase in tuition fees.

Compounding this, the economic malaise is crippling NSFAS. Statistics South Africa reports that the share of NSFAS funding increased from 20% in 2011-12 to 44% in 2020-21. The government’s focus on short-term solutions for student funding is one of the reasons this crisis has ballooned. Unless we find ways to reduce the costs of delivering higher education, increased access will require increased funding.

There are far-reaching consequences. For instance, qualifying students who are not funded are at risk of achieving poor academic results, increasing the dropout rate. It is estimated that more than 40% of all first-year students in South Africa do not complete their degrees. According to a government review of the first 25 years of democracy published in 2019, in the 2010 cohort, 22% of students achieved a three-year degree within three years, only 39% had completed their degrees by the fourth year, and only 56% of students completed their degree by the sixth year.

Additionally, the majority of students come from impoverished backgrounds. At UJ, 59% of students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. They need bursaries to support postgraduate studies. But bursaries for full-time studies are limited, particularly in the social sciences and humanities.

In light of this, many opt for part-time studies while they work. This often hampers their performance.

As the government review states, “The determination which has seen these students battle all odds to make it to the first year, shows a hidden talent and resilience, which the country can ill afford to lose. Thus measures are required to ensure they succeed when they reach university.”

The cost of student debt has a ripple effect for institutions. Capital projects and strategic initiatives are withheld because funds are redirected to servicing the cost of student debt.

Another factor to consider is that the income received from student tuition fees and from government subsidies are the primary sources of institutions’ income. Although UJ is steadily growing its third-stream income generated from external funders and the introduction of reskilling programmes such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), short courses and online campuses, the university remains reliant on fees for its financial stability, sustainability and longevity.

As such, student funding dictates the spending and allocation of institutional income towards resources to further advance and enhance the academic and research agenda of the university. This includes investment in professional development, retention and recruitment of quality academic and research staff, as well as research projects and the Global Excellence and Stature strategy at UJ.

The effect on research has a direct effect on the rankings of universities, as most global ranking systems focus on research-intensive universities based on metrics such as research productivity, research quality and impact, research excellence, research collaboration with international academic colleagues, income generated for research purposes, and so on.

In addition, university rankings are starting to incorporate metrics on student opinions of their university experience, including student funding. The difficulties students experience with funding will inform their opinion of their university experience, ultimately affecting rankings outcomes. Rankings are important for third-stream funding, for the stature of universities and for competition, collaboration and cooperation.

Given these complexities, how do we respond? It is worth highlighting some of the initiatives at UJ. The university spends more than R10 million on the student meal assistance programme annually to assist about 4 600 students monthly. In partnership with industry, the university has raised close to R2 billion since 2016 to assist missing middle students. Since 2009, UJ has made R20 million available every year to assist 5 000 financially needy students with their registration fees annually. Based on the university’s determination to support students that are academically deserving and financially needy, it recently launched the Double our Future Impact Campaign, which aims to assist 10 000 students in 2023. To date, UJ has raised close to R3 million.

Despite these feats, there are wider sector-wide considerations. First, what is required is private partnership collaborations to address the student funding shortfall. Second, a strategy in managing student funding is required, supported by the government. Third, efforts should be focused on raising funds to assist students who completed their studies and are due to graduate but have an outstanding debt.

If we have any hope of expanding access to education, these are some of the problems that have to be addressed with urgency. If we are to address the South African condition – marred by inequality, inequity and “inaccess”, universities have to play their part while simultaneously calling for change higher up.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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