Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa. File Image: IOL
JOHANNESBURG - President Jacob Zuma is said to have declared that tertiary education will be free. Many a commentator has correctly asked where the R40billion required to fund such annually would come from? The malaise in education has been a festering sore with the performance of black and coloured students marked by regressive and debilitating outcomes.

The question should be tempered with an analysis of what the effects of plumbing a clogged system and finally allowing flow will be, rather than where the money will come from. A more radical question should be about where will the money come from when the Basic Education system begins to perform and spits out say 300 000 students into university a year? And will the country afford a million students enrolled at university then?

By the way, there are currently a million students enrolled at university, but with a meagre throughput of 160 000 students coming out of matric each year.

Clogged system

This is the more appropriate question rather than one asked in the context of a clogged system that requires plumbing.

The answer in that regard is this: It is better to unclog the system by funding everyone and holding them rigorously to perform and finish their studies in the allocated time rather than holding them, as students, to paying fees and failing to perform with consequent compromised arrangements that make the system more expensive.

Our saving grace, ironically, is a poorly performing Basic Education that does not spit out sufficient pupils in higher education. With changes that are taking place in Basic Education, we can expect this challenge to eventuate soon.

The genesis of this education crisis was precipitated through a sharp and pernicious policy position articulated in 1953 by the state. This was when the then minister of education Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, who later became the prime minister, asked in Parliament: “What is the use of teaching a Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”

Following this policy statement a battery of directed laws were enacted to dispense with blacks and render them to the Bantu Education dustbin of history. Twenty three years later - in 1976 - adolescents and teenagers in Soweto decided to lead an emancipatory movement that would free them from inferior education.

The gains were visible in the political sphere and they advanced the possibility of liberation politically, but further harmed the prospect of freedom from want in education. The depth of the consequences of these successive periods of educational want are seen in a failed demographic dividend for blacks and coloureds - itself an indelible indictment of what our past and current generations are bequeathing to future generations.

The #FeesMustFall movement is part and parcel of the student movement's sporadic protests, with seemingly long intervals. It cannot be separated from this chain of history and neglect by circumstance, commission or omission over human resource development in South Africa.

However big the numbers that graduate appear today - they are only looking big because of base effects. We have as a country hardly scratched at the surface.

It is important, therefore, to look at the facts in their true nature and ask the question if R40bn is too expensive, what will be the cost of a failed demographic dividend?

The answer is simple - it is a demographic disaster. With each passing day the intensity of this disaster is growing - and before the ignorant pass their poisonous judgement that there are too many foreigners and too many babies born, let me stop them in their tracks - it is not because of any of these.

It is because too few progressively for each cohort get to succeed to and through tertiary education, primarily because of funding constraints. If there is one thing that should keep South Africans awake at night and should force our collective conscience about the future of this nation - it is education and being unequivocal about the urgent need for its free access, yesterday!

I certainly appreciate the question where the R40bn will come from - the question is what are the upstream processes that will allow solutions, and the downstream strategies that will lessen the impact?

What I am arguing is this R40bn is no longer relevant - the consequences of having not driven free tertiary education are just too dire, and exceed by far the R40bn we sadly do not have now. A different question to be asked is this: Can South Africa afford not to provide free tertiary education given the demographic disaster waiting to happen when that free education is not provided?

Oblivious

One thing that South Africans and its policy-makers seem to be oblivious of is the arrangements under which children are brought up in this country Itself a consequence of apartheid and its destructive strength in spatial development - a legacy remaining deeply rooted with us to date.

The honest, but patchy work around the "missing middle" and those above a R700 000 per annum threshold is devoid of deepening our understanding of the social being that this country and its people are - it tinkered on the margins.

Sixty percent of fathers claim to be married against 30percent of mothers. I have raised these statistics a number of times as a background to addressing the deep-rooted challenges confronting the youth, who aspire and deserve to achieve tertiary education.

Perhaps I did not raise it sharply enough and Mr Yonela Diko wanted to twist my tongue and shut my mouth from doing so, claiming poorly that I am drawing spurious conclusions. The landmark judgment in a court case in Bloemfontein that dismissed the joint income of parents or spouses as the determinant of paying fees is important in this regard. It is because I precisely anticipated this four years ago, when I first brought this startling statistic of married fathers against married mothers to the fore, and continued to strongly be loud about it.

Falsehoods

The judgment now appearing as unexpected has, firstly, laid bare the fundamental falsehoods and weak assumptions that underpin our policy frames, which for too long avoided to recognise and address upfront the impacts of dysfunction of our South African society - sad as it might be. When former president Thabo Mbeki worked on a moral regeneration programme we tended to pay lip service to it and the chickens have come home to roost.

Secondly, the judgment has freed mothers and freed students from being continuously humiliated by their history of conjugal and sexual relationships.

Thirdly, and sadly, it has raised the spectre of the “animal” father syndrome of South African men. To assume that South African fathers will suddenly be responsible and pay fees "inshAllah" (God willing) - if we hope for that, we shall never solve the skills crisis and monumental development challenges South Africa faces. However, this needs to be addressed.

Fourthly, besides this landmark judgment, there is another major constraint of copying and following among siblings. In this regard, normally once a sibling goes to university it is likely that they will be followed by a second and a third sibling. In that regard, over a period of say eight years, any parent or parents will always have a minimum of two children at university.

Income threshold

So the income threshold of fee-paying begs the question of whether it is payment for one child or more children? If it is for one child, as I strongly opine, the argument and rationale around payment suffers ecological fallacy, and therefore, the strategy is unlikely to see the light of day.

The seminal judgment, with its class effect, has thrown the nitpicking argument on fees completely out of the window and this may include the R700000 threshold.

Fundamentally, a student as an independent individual from his/her parents cannot be asked to pay and any court will be sympathetic to the plight of the student.

For once I suspect, that as South Africans, we will engage on what our real priorities are and we will begin to effectively engage the discipline of planning and using facts, and not one of “spanning frogs and observe them as they jump randomly” Be it an SAA rescue, Eskom rescue and/or any other rescue.”

The R40bn required annually for free education has moved the Overton window of political possibilities for education to where it belongs. This was surprisingly so, judging by the silence on this subject during the campaign for the 2016 local government elections, which occurred at the height of the #FeesMustFall movement.

How relevant has the Overton window of political possibilities become in relation to the subject of education?

Dr Pali Lehohla is retired statistician-general and former head of Statistics SA

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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