Real cost of education exacerbates the eduction divide in SA

Jan Mentz, is the academic Dean and Belgium Campus. Photo: Supplied

Jan Mentz, is the academic Dean and Belgium Campus. Photo: Supplied

Published Jan 16, 2024


By Jan Mentz

At the beginning of a new academic year, most parents are busy with back-to-studies shopping and setting their child up for success. This is one of the most important investments that can be made.

However, the reality is that most people are precluded from acquiring a tertiary education, thereby exacerbating the education divide in South Africa. To reduce the wasted cost of a high drop-out rate, parents need to be better prepared for what are several hidden costs. These costs are not only financial, but an emotional cost related to unrest on campus and the uncertainty of getting work after acquiring a hard-earned qualification in an economy with an almost 33% unemployment rate.

On the face of it, a conversation about the real cost of education is all about the quantum of money.

There are many hidden costs often not considered – living expenses such as food, clothes, accommodation, data, internet, and transport while a student studies for at least three years. These costs vary considerably depending on the course and level of study.

Therefore, the hidden costs of university education in South Africa can add up to a significant extra amount – in the tens of thousands – that students need to be aware of and plan for.

From the student’s perspective this may seem easily resolved by putting more public money into the system, which in turn creates complexity based on how to select, distribute, and manage this money. The taxpayer, meanwhile, carries the burden of such a funding scheme, problematic in the context of a shrinking tax base.

The reality is that post-school education is an expensive undertaking – with the result that most of the country’s student population cannot afford to study under their own means and consequently rely on public funding. While the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) exists precisely to help less wealthy students, unfortunately the above expenses aren’t usually covered by the scheme, a detail easily missed by families of first-year students.

On a deeper level there is also the cost of interruptions and delays in the process of studying. While Covid showed that taking studies online is possible, it introduces new challenges through the inherent but flawed assumption that studying online is easy. Studying can be challenging at the best of times, but harder still with the emotional and psychological impact of interruptions in the academic year, as well as violence on campus.

Steps must be taken to promote a culture of repayment among students and graduates, and their parents, which could help more students to be funded in the future. Similarly, there could be work done to encourage students to complete their studies faster and avoid dropping out or repeating courses.

The real cost of education in South Africa is not only measured by fees and expenses, but also by the impact of funding challenges, social instability and academic disruption on the quality and accessibility of education for all.

Are there not ways to solve this by making the obvious education costs more visible? Private institutions are forced to do this and as a result come across as expensive, but perhaps this is due to the total cost of tuition fees being visible to the payer up front and usually includes all the otherwise hidden costs. People often think private education is too expensive, but public education has all kinds of surprises that one only is made aware of after registration.

The real cost of education is a multifaceted issue that encompasses more than just tuition fees. It involves financial burdens, emotional tolls, and broader societal implications. To address these challenges, it is crucial for policymakers, institutions, and society to consider the true cost of education and work towards making it more accessible, affordable, and supportive of students’ overall well-being.

Jan Mentz, Academic Dean at Belgium Campus