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One of the best proposals presented at the Fees Commission in 2016 to explore the feasibility of free education in South Africa was delivered by Ntokozo Mahlangu, a Wits graduate.

At the time, he suggested that it was possible to have free education through an accredited online university.

He was on the right track. What is already available is free access online to textbooks dealing with high school curriculum. The reality is that, right now, one of the biggest cost contributors to education is textbooks.

The textbooks industry is a billion dollar industry that needs to be overhauled if the high cost of education issue is to be resolved.

The great news is that it is possible to enable free access to textbooks designed for tertiary education through technology that already exists.

We can learn a lot from what Mark Horner and Siyavula, an organisation dedicated to enabling access to free textbooks, have done.


Siyavula has developed a technology that allows subject matter experts to contribute to the development of a textbook.

The technology allows various people who are great at various disciplines to share that knowledge and create the best textbook for that subject. So far this has been done mainly for high school education.

There is, however, nothing stopping the same approach in the development of textbooks for tertiary education.

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What is great about this approach is that it takes care of the copyright matter. Currently, copyright has been the greatest stumbling block in enabling access to education in the textbook development process. The fact that an author of a textbook and the publisher expects high returns for their contribution is the contributing factor to the high cost of textbooks.

The Siyavula technology approach makes use of creative commons, which recognises content contributors and allows readers (learners) of such information free access to the textbook. The same approach can be applied to the development of textbooks for tertiary education.

Online textbooks can be developed by current experts or government funded academics in various disciplines and be updated whenever there’s a need.

Rewarding knowledge

What about rewarding content contributors to such a free textbook?

A Freemium model has been proven to work for most technology products such as Google e-mail and others.

Basically, people can have access to a free version of the textbook and pay for online interaction with the author or pay for a seminar with the author.

Read also: Naspers targets education for growth

When Ntokozo Mahlangu presented the idea of a free accredited online university one academic asked whether Unisa was not such an institution. The answer to that question is that Unisa is not a free university, however, it has a potential to become an accredited free online university.

Unisa’s business model can be turned around to allow access online for free and payment for offline access via classes in various regions where students can attend classes and pay for such interaction.

Wesley Diphoko is the founder and chief executive, Kaya Labs, a research and development platform that is dedicated to the development of technology leaders.